The Hermeneutics of the Abyss: Some Thoughts on Traditionis Custodes

July 19, 2021
Best of Larry Chapp
A discussion of traditionis custodes through a hermeneutic of the abyss.

Joseph Ratzinger, in his marvelous book, “Introduction to Christianity,” speaks about Saint Thérèse of Lisieux and her temptations to atheism and despair.  And all of these temptations came despite the fact that her entire life was framed by, and formed within, the matrix of a nurturing Catholic culture and family.  Ratzinger states, in a quote worthy of full citation, the following:

“In other words, in what is apparently a flawlessly interlocking world someone here suddenly catches a glimpse of the abyss lurking – – even for her – – under the firm structure of the supporting conventions. In a situation like this, what is in question is not the sort of thing that one perhaps quarrels about otherwise – – the dogma of the Assumption, the proper use of confession – – all this becomes secondary.  What is at stake is the whole structure; it is a question of all or nothing. That is the only remaining alternative; nowhere does there seem anything to cling to in this sudden fall. Wherever one looks, only the bottomless abyss of nothingness can be seen.”
(Introduction to Christianity, Ignatius Press edition, 1990, p. 43)

In what follows I am going to offer my own take on the recent motu proprio with an eye toward this “abyss” that lurks below us and the “all or nothing” decision Ratzinger speaks of here.  My claim is that the controversy is not so much an argument over liturgy, which is merely a proximate provocation, but is rather a renewed eruption of the seemingly never-ending debate over the proper reception of Vatican II. And my further claim is that this debate must be resolved in a very particular direction – – the direction of ressourcement theology – – and any failure to see this truth will threaten our very ability to avoid the abyss that Ratzinger speaks of here.  In other words, the stakes are high in this debate and go far beyond arguments over liturgy, which are merely a symptom of a much deeper pathology.

Let me first begin with a brief analysis of what I think of the Motu Proprio, after which I will move on to my main point.  

For the record, I think this decision by the Pope is wrong and I think the reasons he gives, though partially true, do not sufficiently justify this action.  I do not attend a TLM Mass and attend instead an Ordinariate parish, but I greatly respect the spiritual fruits that have come from those parishes that celebrate the TLM. I find the motu proprio rather cold and harsh, and find it puzzling that a Pope who speaks so much of mercy and accompaniment when it comes to people in immoral sexual relationships – – going so far as to send a personal letter to Father James Martin thanking him and comparing his ministry to that of Jesus – – should suddenly now turn so harshly against a small number of Catholics of a traditionalist bent.  Where is the accompaniment? Where is the dialogue?  Where is the reaching out?  Where is the frank analysis of why so many Catholics of this type find the mainstream Church so dull and uninspiring that they feel compelled to worship in older forms? These too are his sheep but Pope Francis clearly wants no part in “smelling like them” and prefers instead the odiferous stench of ageing German refugees from the sixties.  Apparently, some sheep are more equal than others…

And while it is indeed true that some of the leading internet provocateurs in the traditionalist movement have engaged in a harsh and divisive rhetoric (many of whom I have criticized in this blog,) this is not what characterizes the majority of such folks.  But the Pope does not seem aware of this, mainly because he never really bothered to find out, which gives the appearance at least that his polling of the bishops was most likely just a smokescreen to cover for a decision that was made long ago and for reasons altogether different from the ones stated in the motu proprio, even if the stated reasons are at least partially true.  There is also the puzzling decision to reserve approval for new priests to celebrate the TLM to a Vatican office, all the while talking of a decentralized papacy and allowing the Germans to carry on with their “synodal path,’ with its Teutonic arrogance and open defiance of Church teaching.  The entire motu proprio therefore reeks of a clericalistic odor with no consideration given to the pastoral needs of the laity who find such great spiritual comfort in attending the old Mass. This was a heavy-handed “top-down” decision that will not create the unity the Pope says is his aim, but will instead return us to 1970 with its fractious struggles over the implementation of Vatican II.  For me personally, at age 62 and as one who lived through that silly season, this all seems like déjà vu all over again as we are transported via Mr. Peabody’s “way back” time machine to the felt-banner, macrame Catholicism of my youth and a jam session with the Saint Louis Jesuits.  No thank you. I gladly return the ticket.  

But by now all of this has quickly become boilerplate analysis and many fine theologians, such as Cardinal Mueller, have offered a sustained theological critique of the motu proprio that make any further criticisms from me unnecessary.  What I want to offer instead is an analysis of what is not in the motu proprio but should have been.  There is a lot left unsaid in this document that should have been said if, as the Pope claims, his aims here are pastoral.  

What is lacking is a piercing pastoral analysis of what has brought us to this point in the first place.  Why is it that so many Catholics of deep faith have grown weary of the “business as usual” Catholicism of our parishes and have felt the need to flee to an older iteration of the faith, in both liturgy and in theology, and who do so, not out of nostalgia for a past they never knew, but because they have found something there that rips open their souls with the passion of a lover?  We can prattle-on with spittle flecked outrage about the audacity of those who dare reject Vatican II or who dare criticize the Novus Ordo, but it will come to nothing unless we own up to the fact that the Church has failed to recognize that the anomic and nihilistic cosmos of post-modernity has laid waste to all of our standard structures of meaning, all of the traditions that embodied and made “real” that meaning, and all of the moral and spiritual weight of everything that came before five minutes ago.  The Church has failed to even notice and, therefore, to acknowledge, that modern Catholics in the West are drowning with a slow gurgling death in the chaotic waters of modernity’s hegemonic enchantments. That we live in a collective of concupiscence that enslaves us to the morbid regime of death and the allure of immortality through pleasure. The Church has failed to recognize that all “ultimates” have been killed as effective realities by the Mammon and Moloch of modernity and have been replaced with an endless panoply of penultimate counterfeits.  The Church has failed to recognize the “abyss” that Ratzinger outlines which has now opened up below us and into which we all feel inexorably drawn as we flail our arms about desperately trying to grasp hold of something (anything!) solid.  

The abyss of the “unreality of God” has seized our culture and also our Church causing millions of Catholics to walk away from its insouciant drivel and its pretentious posturing as just so many empty lies designed to shore-up the last pathetic vestiges of its Constantinian trappings which have all been (surely now clearly!) exposed.  We wait in vain for a clarion call from the Church for a revolution of the soul, for a great night of collective repentance, for a great divestment of privilege, for a radical living of the Sermon on the Mount, or for the lifeboats to be dispatched forthwith to collect those adrift and drowning in the abyss.  There is none of that.  Instead, we get a motu proprio that simply scolds those who have apparently grabbed for the wrong lifeboat and which says “silence!” to the cri de couer coming from its desperate sheep.

Ratzinger’s “abyss” (as I am calling it) is the deep existential reality of our time and the strength of its rip tide requires an equally strong response from the Church.  A parish priest who is a dear and close friend of mine said to me once: “the crisis we face is the crisis of a laity and of a Church that does not even seem to know which questions to ask and, therefore, which answers to offer.”  Ours is a Church that has failed to ask the right questions and has therefore failed to flip the script of our culture’s lies and deceptions.  We asked for bread.  We got stones.  And thus did some in the sheepfold seek bread elsewhere in the alternative Catholic communities made possible by Summorum Pontificum.  And if some have fled to such havens with a goodly amount of undifferentiated bitterness it should be understood not as the bitterness of hatred, but rather as the bitterness of the desperate.  

What all of this points to is that the debates and controversies that we see now all around us are not going to go away until we start taking seriously the deep spiritual crisis that is at the core of every single one of them.  And we are not going to get anywhere so long as we persist in seeking bureaucratic or “structural” solutions to what are at root deeply spiritual problems.  You can legislate away the widespread use of the Tridentine liturgy, but you cannot legislate away the conditions of possibility that led to its rise in the first place.  You cannot legislate away the boring and banal mediocrity of so many suburban Catholic parishes.  I am a cradle Catholic, a former seminarian and a trained theologian.  And I attend an Ordinariate parish rather than my territorial parish.  And no motu proprio can legislate away the reasons why I do.  The Church can remove the Ordinariates tomorrow and ban every Latin Mass and every altar rail and every veil and every extruded tongue at communion time, and mandate that all Catholics must worship with the “Gather” hymnal in heart shaped churches, with bare concrete walls, holding sweaty hands, while watching maladroit octogenarians do liturgical dance in the sanctuary with streamers, sparklers, and sock puppets, and it will do nothing to ameliorate the spiritual dread that gnaws at us all.  All that such legislating will ever do is to deepen the abyss below us as it hollows out the heavens above us.

There is only one path forward and it is my constant refrain:  Vatican II’s universal call to holiness and the christocentric theological anthropology that animates it.  And before you all roll your eyes be aware of what it is I mean by this.  The Council was a great debate but that debate ended in 1965.  And we cannot go on and on acting as if the debate is still open and ongoing.  The Church cannot be in constant debate mode.  Things were settled at the Council and there was a clearly victorious party: the ressourcement school of thought.  And this fact is not changed by the later victory of the progressive party in the media and in the Catholic academy. The pontificates of John Paul and Benedict ratified the victory of the ressourcement school on a magisterial level.

Unfortunately, the truly radical Catholicism of the ressourcement school, and of Vatican II itself, was domesticated and a bit muted, as the theological lunacy of the proponents of “rupture” gained strength, requiring from the Church a doubling down on the hermeneutic of continuity to such an extent that one began to wonder if there was anything pastorally new and unique in the Council at all, beyond a different form of liturgy.  Therefore, in my view, despite the “victory” of the ressourcement school at Vatican II, the true depths of that victory have yet to be plumbed.  Furthermore, unless we do rediscover those depths as the key to a renewal in the Church we will continue to spin our wheels in the mud with endless debates over penultimate issues like whether or not Taylor Marshall really does speak for all traditionalists, and if the motu proprio is really directed at folks like Marshall/Vigano, and if all of this shows an anti-American agenda in Pope Francis, and if we can now find a canonical way around this “heretical” Pope and his Freemason lollipop guild and get on with the Liturgy of 1962… oops … 1955 … oops … 1905.    

Therefore, the “depths” of which I speak in ressourcement theology are those elements still there to be mined concerning truly ultimate things and are, therefore, a true theological counter-ballast to the “abyss” of modernity and are not merely some clever new formulation of theological speculation.  That counter-ballast is there in the ressourcement awareness of the unique crisis posed by modernity’s agonistic betrayal of the spiritual domain, and of the need to confront that crisis with the full resources of the Church’s intellectual and spiritual treasury that go far beyond the static, stale, and shopworn categories of neo-scholasticism on the one hand, and of the fire sale “everything must go!” Catholicism of the culturally appeasing progressives.  The progressives at least also recognized the abyss below.  But they wanted to embrace it as an “always already reconciled and engraced abyss.”  Only the ressourcement thinkers, and their modern heirs in such movements as the Communio and Radical Orthodoxy schools, truly understand the depth of the crisis at hand.  And what these schools have in common is the realization that “business as usual” Christianity is dead and that only a radical transformation of the Church into a cruciform, Christological icon of the descent into Hell will do.  We must, in solidarity with those threatened by the abyss, vicariously suffer its darkness and thereby develop forms of sacramental worship, deeply rooted in the Tradition (because no ersatz liturgy can ever shine with the light of Christ’s victory over the abyss) that vibrate on the frequency of conquered darkness.  

Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict sensed this need.  Which is why he spoke of a “hermeneutic of reform” rather than just continuity.  Because “reform” always implies that there is going to be some rupture with the recent past, in order to retrieve the lost nuggets of a deeper continuity.  I think, in other words, that what Benedict is proposing is a “hermeneutic of the abyss” for understanding the true legacy of the Council.  

A hermeneutic of the abyss is a true pastoral bombshell. “Dynamite” as Peter Maurin called it.  Perhaps we can get a motu proprio on that.

Dorothy Day, pray for us.

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