Thursday, January 26, 2012

Droppings from the Catholic Birdcage: Tics, Gesticulations, Swoops, and Flourishes Amidst Liturgical Bedlam

So many droppings, so little time.  I want to frame today's piece with a snippet that a reader sent to Andrew Sullivan recently.  The following isn't the birdcage dropping per se.  Instead, please regard it as the scoop with which I'll then pick up the Catholic birdcage dropping on which I really intend to focus:

It's funny that you linked to the story regarding the Catholic Church's position on the birth control under the health care insurance rules. My wife, daughter and I went to mass on Long Island on Saturday night at 5PM, a mass that tends to be an older crowd though some families are mixed in. Our pastor was the celebrant and his sermon amounted to him yelling for 15 minutes about abortion, the administration's anti-religious attacks, and contraception. He was particularly upset about the contraception rules - yelling about taking money out of his insurance premiums to subsidy the pill - to the point that he took the Lord's name in vain as he walked in front of the altar. When he was screaming about the money, the only thought that went through my mind was the amount of money I've put into the collection box that was used by the Church to cover up pedophile priest cases.

And so I want to talk about the Catholic liturgy.  And what it is now becoming.  I want to suggest that for many Catholics, the central act of worship in which we gather to celebrate God's loving presence is threatening to become a bedlam experience in a period marked by intense and angry reaction among the top leaders of the church.  In a period of angry reaction in which an angry, reactionary priest can, per a parishioner's report, precede the lifting of the chalice of benediction by raging  about how his insurance premiums subsidize contraception and then shouting a blasphemy from the altar to cap off his performance of reactionary liturgical-political rage.

This is what the central act of worship in the Catholic community has become in the experience of some Catholics, because it's all that's on offer now in the market maintained by the church of reactionary restorationism.  This is now the brand of choice on tap in the liturgical pub of the restorationist church that is, for lay Catholics, the only pub in town: taste and see the sweetness of the Lord in our newly-brewed brand of liturgy!  And so I'm writing this particular Catholic birdcage-dropping piece to pursue further reflections about the last time Steve and I went to liturgy, on Christmas eve at old St. Mary's cathedral in Chinatown in San Francisco, and, in that light, to talk about what we see the liturgy becoming at this moment of Catholic history just after the "new" translation has been imposed on English-speaking Catholics.

As the posting to which I've just pointed reports, what struck both of us at that liturgy, in particular, was the communion segment of the service.  We've continued to dissect this event and to try to figure out just what it was about that particular piece of liturgical theater that so engaged our attention.  And here's the conclusion we've reached:

In this period of Catholic reaction, of the reform of the reform in which a ridiculously wooden and stilted  translation has just been imposed on lay Catholics who did not ask for or want changes in the liturgy, the moment of communion that is the most central liturgical sign of the unity of the church is becoming a wild smorgasbord of individualized ritualized tics, gesticulations, swoops, and flourishes that are far more like a spectacle out of bedlam than a bona fide liturgical celebration of unity.  The grand irony of the liturgical "reforms" that have just been imposed on Catholics who did not ask for them is that they are being imposed precisely in the name of creating greater unity in the church.  When, in fact, the overriding logic of the reactionary movement from which these liturgical "reforms" are emanating is all about significantly fracturing the unity of the church.

Before I get to this point, a few preliminary provisos.  I'm making these observations about what the Catholic liturgy has become of late as an outsider.  We no longer attend liturgy for reasons I've previously explained.

We drop in now and again when some obligation to family or friends takes us to church.  And so these observations are, as it were, the observations of an anthropologist who is not a member of the tribe whose behavior he's observing.  He's looking at a culture that is not precisely his own, but which has enough familiarity that he can perceive the contours of this or that social or ritual act sufficiently well to decipher some of its significance, albeit as an outsider to the acts.  But though these are the observations of an outsider, they're also the observations of an informed outsider who may be seeing what those on the inside are missing, simply because they've become thoroughly familiar with strains of madness that strike an outsider as, well, perhaps more than a tad crazy.

I also know that the moment of communion in the Catholic liturgy is an intensely sacred moment at which the point of worship is not to stare at one's fellow worshippers and observe their tics, gesticulations, swoops, and flourishes.  It's a moment to commune with the Lord and through Christ, with everyone else in the church.  And people's choice of particular devotional gestures is very much personal, and neither I nor anyone else can measure the level of genuine piety that lies behind the choice of any given liturgical gesture.

However, for a trained theologian whose training is all about observing, reading texts and unraveling the strands of meaning that comprise them, relating liturgical proclamation to the church's ethical proclamations in the public sphere, it's also almost impossible not to look.  And to wonder and think.  And it does have to be admitted: the liturgical theater that the restorationist leaders of the church are now actively encouraging in every way possible is downright entertaining, and is meant to be engrossing.

It's in the liturgy above all that Catholics of the right (including the top leaders of the church) are egging each other on to act out.  To be flamboyant.  To make bold, significant gestures.  To show those quasi-orthodox brothers and sisters how it is really done by people of sound faith who haven't caved in to radical secularism and liberal theological eclecticism.

The moment of communion, the moment at which lay Catholics approach the altar, has become in this restorationist period of angry reaction a moment of high theatrical spectacle in which, in some Catholic parishes, Catholics seek to outdo brother and sister Catholics in lavish gestures of devotion and orthodox faith.  Steve and I first became aware of the extent to which this is going on nowadays in one of our last family-induced liturgical obligations prior to the Christmas liturgy about which I wrote in the posting to which the last link points.

At this gathering of Steve's family that included the obligation of Mass-going, we first began to see, through the tics, gesticulations, swoops, and flourishes of various members of his family who have adopted a strongly reactionary Catholicism, what the reform of the reform portends for Catholic liturgy.  As I've noted, Steve's family now includes a sister and brother-in-law who no longer attend any non-Latin liturgies.  They repudiate Vatican II and stand with the Pius X schismatic faction.   And when, as with this event, they do attend the debased vernacular liturgy of the post-Vatican II church because family commitments require this, they signpost their participation with a number of indicators designed to proclaim their adherence to the purer old faith of the "true" Latin Mass.

These signposts include, of course, heavy mantillas and "modest" all-enswathing dresses (never pants) for the womenfolks.  They also include telling little flourishes at points in the liturgy at which the debased vernacular has departed from the purity of the Latin that Jesus spoke--a different credal word here, a bowing and crossing unique to true believers there.

That's one sibling and her family.  As I've also noted, there's another sister who, while she hasn't outright broken with the debased vernacular-liturgy church, leans Latin and wants the liturgy reformed according to her particular liturgical lights--which mandate increasingly dramatic gestures like a full prostration (heavy mantilla floating about her head) before she receives communion, and kneeling on the bare floor (no wimpy kneelers allowed) at moments in the liturgy when others are standing.

Needless to say, the moment of communion also becomes, for these über-orthodox right-wing Catholic siblings of Steve's, a moment of accentuated gestures that are all about demonstrating that their faith and devotion are purer than those of other less pure Catholics.  And this is where the really interesting performances came on stage at the family gathering on which I'm commenting here.

At that gathering, there was serious competition between the two mantilla-draped sisters, one now with the schismatic Lefebvrite faction, the other Latin-leaning but hanging in with the debased vernacular, and a sister-in-law who regards herself as equally orthodox, but who hasn't gone the Latin route.  Or the mantilla route, for that matter.  This happens to be the sister-in-law whose daughter refused to invite me or the partner of her other gay uncle to her wedding several years ago, as her mother explained that a "true" Catholic wedding cannot, of course, include gay couples among the guests, since Catholic believe marriage is only about a man and a woman.

And so, while the two sisters of the far right received communion on the tongue (that goes without saying) after various bows, flourishes, and signings, the sister-in-law in competition with them for the title of purest of the pure did the following.  To demonstrate that she's in full communion with Rome (giving her a one-up status over the Latin-faction and Latin-leaning sisters-in-law), she received communion in the hand.

But to demonstrate that she's more orthodox than the rest of the common lot who grasp hold of the consecrated host, she then stopped in front of the priest, having received the eucharist and blessed herself, and for a full minute held up the communion line as she plucked carefully at the palm of her hand to remove any perceptible trace of the communion wafer from her hand.  Since that's what orthodox Catholics do, you understand, to demonstrate that they're receiving communion in the hand with real faith in the real presence of Christ in the eucharist.

And that plucking at the palm says much about what the liturgy has made of itself in the period of the reform of the reform.  There's at work in the Catholic world today an increasingly magical-materialistic notion of the eucharist, which is centered on defiant and ever-increasing gestures of real belief in the real presence--as if most Catholics have given up such real belief and we need these gestures to sort the pure from the impure.  This magical-materialistic notion of the eucharist, which is fueled by hysterical  bogus claims that Catholics have stopped believing in the real presence, promotes a constantly burgeoning array of tics, gesticulations, swoops, and flourishes by which individual believers demonstrate that they do believe in the real presence.

And that you don't.  There's not merely an exhibitionary impulse at the root of this burgeoning array of ritual gestures: there's also a getting-the-rest-of-you told impulse.  They positively have to increase and vary in order for me to demonstrate to the rest of you that my faith is purer than yours, in a period in which the reform of the reform keeps insisting that ordinary Catholics are waning in their belief in the real presence of Christ in the eucharist.  And in the right-wing political commitments that are thought by the hierarchy and certain segments of the Catholic population energized by the hierarchy to go hand in hand with liturgical purity.

And this way madness lies: hence my bedlam metaphor.  There is something more than a little crazy, after all, is there not, about standing in front of one's parish priest (and the entire parish) after one has received communion, and picking at the skin of one's palm to remove traces of the eucharistic bread--when anything we touch leaves minute, imperceptible traces of itself on our hands, and we cannot possibly remove all of those atoms short of searing off our skin.

And why, after all, should one even want to remove particles of the host from one's hand, when one believes that one has just taken the eucharistic Christ into one's own body by eating it?  If the whole point of communion is to commune with Christ by receiving the bread that is Christ physically into one's body, what difference is there between receiving the eucharistic bread by consuming it and having an atom of it on one's fingertips?

There's a certain craziness, a bedlam quality, about what the Catholic liturgy has made of itself in the period of the reform of the reform.  Tics abound.  Swoops and flourishes proliferate.  Gesticulations thrive.  And all--supreme irony!--in the name of assuring and imposing from on high a unity said to be waning among the people of God . . . .

In fact, it now becomes positively dangerous to go to communion in some Catholic churches these days since one never knows whether the person ahead of oneself in the communion line is going to stop suddenly and execute a profound bow from the waist, as we saw several grim young Catholics do at our Christmas eve liturgy in San Francisco (almost tripping the unsuspecting communion-goers behind them).  Or one never knows when the person ahead of oneself is going to fling herself on the floor as she reaches the priest, courting a fall for the hapless soul next in line.  Or whether a flying elbow of someone suddenly signing himself with an unexpected sign of the cross at an unanticipated moment (now, it's often before and after receiving the host, frequently with a little nod-curtsey in the direction of the altar afterwards, and a sudden stop to perform this ritual) is going to belt one in the eye as one walks back to one's place in the pew.

Dangerous, a bit.  And more than a little crazy.  It's as if one is observing an unexpected return to some of those periods of Catholic history in which there was such widespread social hysteria about a cultural event--e.g., the outbreak of the bubonic plague in Europe, periods of war and rumors of war--that people began to dance the danse macabre in the streets to appease the wrathful Lord assumed to be behind all the suffering.  Or to flagellate themselves in public processions.

Or to burn witches and Jews and heretics to prove the purity of the faith at a moment at which the waning of faith was blamed for a whole array of social ills.

This is where the Catholic church has chosen to go as the 21st century begins.  This is where the top pastoral leaders of the church have worked hard to make it go.  This march to bedlam could hardly have been predicted when the bright promise of Vatican II broke upon the church in the middle of the last century.  That the church has ended up here in bedlam a half century later is one of the grand mysteries of the recent history of Catholicism, about which scholars of the future will, I suspect, have as much to say as they now do about the insane periods in which the danse macabre, the witch hunts and pogroms and heretic burnings and public self-flagellations, throve.

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