Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Postscript On the Disappearance of Poetry and Passion from American Catholicism


This is a postscript to my posting earlier today.

When I speak of the disappearance of poetry and passion from contemporary American Catholicism, I'm speaking largely of the politically driven reduction of what it means to be Catholic and to believe.  I'm speaking of the reduction of authentic Catholic identity to repetition of catechetical formulas.

I say "politically driven," because this reductionism has largely occurred at the behest of right-wing political interest groups in the American Catholic church (and certainly they have allies in Catholic churches around the world).  Though I suspect not a few bishops know better, the U.S. Catholic bishops have, to a great extent, allowed this small interest group to dominate the conversation about Catholic identity in the U.S.

And the results of that unwise pastoral choice have been dismal, and will become more lamentably obvious in years to come.   

Believing, having faith, is not about repeating ill-understood formulas from a catechism.  It is, as Karen Armstrong's Spiral Staircase (NY: Random House, 2004) reminds us, about the heart first and foremost, and only then about the head.  As Armstrong notes (p. 292), the Latin word credo is thought to come from roots cor + do: "I give [my] heart."

And as Armstrong also notes, the English word "believe" harks back to the old English word beleve, which incorporates the word "love" into its etymological base.

Believing, making a credal confession, is first and foremost about the heart.  It is about doing faith and not saying faith.  It is about engaging mind and heart together.

Poetry and passion do not flourish when the heart-roots of belief are denied or even deliberately stripped from religious conversation and practice for political reasons.  Though many of those on the right accuse Vatican II and its followers of stripping poetry and passion from the church by popularizing the liturgy, the top-down attempt to remystify the liturgy by returning to Latin will not retrieve poetry and passion in the church.

It cannot do so, because this enterprise is largely driven by those who have deliberately and cynically sought to make being an "authentic" Catholic synonymous with reciting selected, ill-digested verses from the catechism.

In other words, this enterprise is being driven by the very people who have stripped the church of poetry and passion.  Liturgical renewal that will re-energize the church by retrieving poetry and passion has to start by paying attention to the lived experience of faith among the Christian people, which is where poetry and passion arise.  Poetry pours forth from human hearts.  It is not imposed by imperial dictates. 

Meaningful worship seeks to make vital connection to movements already going on in human hearts, evident in poetry, song, and other expressions of soul in human communities.  It does not impose forms alien to the movement of human hearts on those communities, and expect religious devotion--poetry--to arise from those imposed and alien forms.

This is not how the liturgical changes now being implemented by the Vatican have come about--not by a long shot.  They are entirely imposed, and they are being imposed by a group of Catholics who have strangled the poetic impulse of the Catholic tradition by reducing the meaning of authentic Catholicism to catechetical statements.

No amount of Latin liturgy and no scads of scarlet silk can change that reality and revive the faltering faith of millions of Catholics.