Monday, September 5, 2011

We Go to Mass, We Receive Orders: The Liturgical Revisions and Ongoing Betrayal of Catholic Pastoral Leadership

Steve and I went to Mass yesterday with his aunts.  For reasons I've explained on this blog, I don't take part in Catholic liturgical celebrations anymore.  The unjust treatment Steve and I have received from Catholic institutions as lay Catholic theologians who happen to be an openly gay couple contradicts what the church proclaims about the eucharist in such gross ways that we can no longer cope with the disparity between what's proclaimed and what's practiced, when it comes to eucharistic life. in our case and the case of many other Catholics unjustly treated by church officials. 

And so we accept the marginal place in which an unwelcoming church has placed us and many others at this point in its history, and we find communion in all the other non-liturgical and non-eucharistic places in which it still exists for us.  When it no longer exists through the eucharist, due to the injustice Catholic officials choose to visit on gay and lesbian human beings . . . .

But because we treasure Steve's two aunts, we chose to attend liturgy with them yesterday as we travel with them.  It was an interesting experience.  Before the liturgy began (the parish is a Benedictine one, and Steve's aunts are Benedictines), the liturgical director of the parish announced that the new liturgical changes mandated by the Vatican will begin soon.  

And as a prelude to those changes, the people of the parish must no longer stand during the Agnus Dei, but must now kneel at that point in the liturgy.  The liturgical director explained that the rubrics already require this, and the liturgical practice of the parish is and has been out of harmony with the rubrics mandated by the Vatican.

And he then went on to explain that this is the reason for all the liturgical revisions now coming from Rome: "variances" have developed in liturgical practice, and Rome has to deal with those "variances" by demanding a unity of practice throughout the English-speaking world.  This unity of liturgical practice is necessary for the unity of the church.  It will consolidate the church's unity, in fact.

And so we all dutifully knelt during the Agnus Dei . . . .

As I thought about this suddenly mandated liturgical revision--a revision mandated from on high, contradicting the practice of the laity of this parish, and a revision they had not asked for--and as I mulled over what the liturgical director told us, it struck me that there's not a great deal of truth in what the liturgical director told the parish about the new liturgical changes coming from Rome.  I don't mean to say that he was deliberately stretching the truth.

I'm sure he believes what he said yesterday, and he's required to say such official-sounding things about the liturgical changes, if he expects to keep his job as the liturgical director of a Catholic parish.  He's in a difficult position right now, and he will naturally put the best face possible on the changes required by Rome.  We Catholics are exceptionally good about making the entirely irrational--even the irrationally cruel--seem good and necessary, via high-flown quasi-rational rhetoric.

We've done that with natural law for quite some time now, when it comes to sexual ethics.  There are still many middle-of-the-road Catholics who consider themselves decent people who believe and practice absolute nonsense--cruel nonsense, when it comes to their gay brothers and sisters--because they believe that the biologically based explanation of natural law handed down by church officials is reasonable, good, and in harmony with divine revelation.

But here's why I think what the liturgical director of the parish told us yesterday is stretching the truth: those "variances" of liturgical practice about which he spoke are simply not going on in parishes throughout the English-speaking world.  If there were such variances in the fairly recent past, they occurred in the period of experimentation and rapid change immediately following Vatican II.  And those have long since been reined in by a centralizing authority intent on establishing its ownership of liturgy at all costs, during the period of excitement created by the council and its opening of windows for the Spirit to blow fresh air into the church.

No one anywhere is demanding an end to wild "variances" in Catholic liturgical practice--no one, that is, except the rabid right in the Catholic church, to whom the central authorities listen with far more eagerness than they listen to the vast majority of Catholics who did not ask for or even want the new liturgical changes.  And these right-wing Catholics regard all the liturgical changes following Vatican II as illicit "variances" on the tried and true liturgy of the past.

And in the second place, the unity of the body of Christ is not confected by uniformity of liturgical practice.  Though there's something to be said for a certain unanimity of liturgical practice and how that unanimity serves unity, liturgy--the eucharist, above all--expresses an already existing unity of the body of Christ which is grounded in something deeper than worship itself.  It is grounded in the lived experience of grace of the Christian people, grounded first and foremost in their lives of love as a community of discipleship of Christ in the world.

The real pastoral challenge confronting Catholic pastoral leaders today--the one they stolidly refuse to recognize or address--is the challenge of figuring out what to do about the thousands upon thousands of faithful Catholics who are rapidly exiting the Catholic church at this point in history.  To argue that telling people to stop standing during the Agnus Dei is addressing that overarching pastoral challenge of our time--that mandating liturgical uniformity is creating unity in a church whose unity is being torn asunder by the loss of huge numbers of its members--is beyond absurd.

It's akin to arguing about whether this particular band-aid strip or that one--the straight one or the one shaped like a circle?--will staunch the bleeding of a lacerated artery, while the person bleeding out from the torn artery is dying on the spot.  The real pastoral challenge that the pope and bishops of the Catholic church need to be facing, if they truly care about serving the unity of the church at this point in its history, has nothing at all to do with liturgical tinkering.

This is the challenge of addressing the large numbers of Catholics who have left the church in recent years and are continuing to leave it because of the bishops' (and Rome's) betrayal of pastoral trust in the abuse crisis.  It's the challenge of figuring out how to serve the unity of the church when many Catholics have been explicitly told that they are not welcome in the church at present--divorced and remarried Catholics, gay and lesbian Catholics, Catholics who believe in and promote discussion of women's ordination, and so forth.  It's the challenge of deciding how to address the sizable numbers of younger Catholics who are walking away from the church as fast as they can with some outreach measures more effective than the circus-like World Youth Day events, which cater to a minority of conservative (and usually European and  North American and well-heeled) Catholic young people of the John Paul II generation.

Instead of addressing these pastoral challenges, Rome is handing down liturgical revisions for which no one except a minuscule group of Catholics of the far right has asked.  And, if what the liturgical director of the parish at which we attended Mass yesterday said is representative of the official speak that will be used in many parishes to justify these changes, even as the unity of the church is being assaulted in the most dramatic way possible now through the mass exodus from the church through which we're living, Catholics are going to be asked by Rome to believe that a band-aid firmly applied to a severed artery is going to heal a badly wounded (a badly self-wounded) institution. 

And that forcing people to kneel during the Agnus Dei is magically going to solve the problems of the badly wounded institution and bring about a unity that can be achieved only through the rediscovery of authentic pastoral leadership from the center, and through the willingness of the pastoral leaders of the church to enter into honest and productive dialogue with the faithful.

In the absence of such willingness, it appears that church leaders are choosing the path of magic.  And denial.  And subterfuge.  And liturgical gamesmanship.  Smoke and mirrors.  Ratcheted-up clericalism.

While the path on which the Holy Spirit placed the church during the second Vatican Council moves in an entirely different direction, and is going unregarded by the present leadership of the Catholic church . . . . In fact, they're doing everything possible to move the church off that path, despite what the Spirit said to the whole church at this last gathering of all bishops of the world.

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