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Adoremus, Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy

The Recovery of the Sacred
Reforming the Reformed Liturgy
Chapter Five - The Death of Community

by James Hitchcock

The death of the Catholic past, as both a cause and an effect of liturgical change, was partly willed by innovators who regarded the past as a drag on the present. Virtually all these innovators were, however, convinced of the central importance of community, and it was the aim of much liturgical experimentation to heighten the sense of this community through celebration. It was the supreme failure of experimental liturgy, therefore, that it so often had the general effect of weakening and even destroying such community as already existed.

This was inevitable first of all because of the disregard of, or even hostility to, the Catholic past which many experimenters demonstrated. They set up a false opposition between a dead tradition and a living present community and thought that somehow the elimination of the former would work toward the strengthening of the latter. The conceit gained currency for a time that a community's past is somehow irrelevant to its present, although after a few years there was inevitably a renewed search for roots. Strong and vital communities are likely to be precisely those which have a significant common past of which the community is keenly aware. A community which seeks to live primarily on its past will petrify, but a community which loses contact with its past or comes to repudiate much of its past is likely to disintegrate. The past is a major factor in defining I the present character of any community, and its loss tends to make the community formless and purposeless. As already suggested, the loss of the Catholic past tended among other things to obliterate people's awareness of belonging to the Communion of Saints. It can be further argued that:

The decline of a sense of tradition in the Church severely weakens not only its continuity with the ages past but also its coherence in the present age.

When liturgical radicalism was first gaining ground, a Benedictine monk proposed: "As liturgy becomes more humble, poor, and sensitive to human needs, there is every reason to believe that the Christian people will become so too .... "1 It was an attractive formula, although somewhat lacking in logic. (Were the most unliturgical churches, for example the Baptists, always more morally aware?) However, it contained a truth which its formulator perhaps did not perceive: as liturgy was systematically stripped and remodeled, the Catholic people became poorer not materially but spiritually. They became humbler because they were often induced to be ashamed of their Church and its past; whether they became more humanely sensitive remains uncertain.

The task of liturgical reform, as generally conceived before the Council, was to perform a series of delicate operations -- the amputation of certain dead limbs, the transplantation of other parts, considerable plastic surgery -- which would be successful because of the deep learning of the surgeons and their profound respect for the patient. In time, however, the learning began to seem irrelevant to many doctors, merely further evidence of a backward mentality. The respect also began to diminish. A few surgeons even seemed to want to kill the patient; there were many who were ready to extract the living parts for use in other organisms. Altogether, the delicacy and complexity of the task was underestimated even by those surgeons who had the best of intentions.

The most acute analysis of the function of religious ritual and the present liturgical crisis in the Church has been made by Mary Douglas. She points out the modern bias which has given the term "ritualist" negative connotations and suggests that the acceptance of this negative implication even by Catholic clergy is evidence of their failure to understand the nature of ritual action. For ritual is not, as both puritanism and the modern secular mind tend to insist, merely the compulsive and empty repetition of meaningless acts. Instead it represents a "heightened sensitivity to symbolic actions". Individual ritual acts function as an "economical condensation" of a whole range of symbols referring to the life of the community, and in Christianity the Eucharist is the most important of these. Mary Douglas cites Friday abstinence as another,2 a symbol which has conveyed a diversity of meanings on a number of levels: a reminder of Christ's death, the need for asceticism on the part of Christians, the hallowing of particular days, membership in a distinct religious group, etc.

Professor Douglas argues that many liturgists were insensitive to the functioning of ritual communication: "It is as if the liturgical signal boxes were manned by colour-blind signalmen." As a result:

When ritualism is openly despised the philanthropic impulse is in danger of defeating itself. For it is an illusion to suppose that there can be organization without symbolic expression . . . . Those who despise ritual, even at its most magical, are cherishing in the name of reason a very irrational concept of communication ....

. . . [those] who prefer unstructured intimacy in their social relations, defeat their wish for communication without words.

For only a ritual structure makes possible a wordless channel of communication that is not entirely incoherent.3

The liturgical crisis came about originally because of a relatively small number of persons, especially certain liturgists, who found the traditional rites and symbols no longer powerful and compelling. They set about to devise new ones, or in some cases to attempt liturgies which had little dependence on symbol at all. But the circularity of the problem was soon evident. The more the symbols were discarded or altered to make liturgy relevant, the more irrelevant it became. Each alteration in the ritual conveyed the symbolic message that the ritual was indeed meaningless. Each attempt to employ old symbolism in new ways merely produced confusion and convinced still more people that the liturgy of the Church was simply incoherent. Indeed "meaningless" came to be a frequent term of dismissal applied to the liturgy, something which had rarely been done even in the days of the Latin Mass. Professor Douglas has suggested that the search for new symbols to replace the old may be fruitless because some people are simply insensitive to symbol altogether: In any case, she states, "As soon as symbolic action is denied value in its own right, the flood-gates of confusion are opened .... If a people takes a symbol that originally meant something else, and energetically holds on to that subverted symbol, its meanings for their personal life must be very profound."4

What existed in the Catholic Church prior to the era of liturgical experimentation was a coherent and stable, even rigid, system of symbols which in turn reflected a coherent and stable, even rigid, way of life. Although the entire system might sometimes seem oppressive, it was respected and did not for the most part induce bitterness or alienation in those raised within it, because whatever else it did, it provided a focus around which human life might be structured and it provided a way by which this meaning could be expressed. The Second Vatican Council was an effort to remove the rigidities from this life without losing the coherence and stability; those who misread its intentions Soon attacked the latter as well. The radicalization of liturgy perhaps occurred earlier than the same process in doctrine, the religious life, or morals, but all came to exist in symbiotic relationship: a weakening belief in the coherence of Catholic life caused a weakening attachment to the Church's liturgical symbols; but the deliberate transformation of the symbols in turn caused a further weakening of belief in the basic coherence of the Church's life.

Thus there occurred that most peculiar of all the phenomena of the postconciliar Church, the fact that as the Church became less rigid and more adaptable it drove away more and more of its members, provoked more and more rebellion, and induced more and more a sense of alienation and frustration in its people, almost as though those who were loudest in their demands for change were most angry because the changes occurred. It was Soon clear, for example, that those religious orders which tried most energetically to "reform" themselves were likely to lose the most members and attract the fewest novices, that those clergy who threw themselves most eagerly into the quest for a relevant liturgy were among those most likely to leave the priesthood, and that those laymen who joined the new underground groups were among those who would soonest discover that liturgy no longer had any meaning for them, reformed or not.

All of this is explicable because extreme measures taken in the interest of change were often the last desperate efforts of people who already sensed that for them everything had lost its meaning. It is also explicable, however, because the willingness to manipulate sacred symbols in daring new ways itself destroyed whatever vestiges of meaning the symbols may still have had for these people. They often ended in a state of confusion because their own attempts to revolutionize liturgy had the direct effect of promoting confusion, and they ended in a state of bitterness because of the enormous gap between their expectations of what change would achieve and what it actually did achieve. Yet the disappointment was due at least as much to the unwittingly destructive and counter-productive policies which they had pursued as to the sluggishness of the Church.

The most serious of these counter-productive policies has already been discussed [In Chapter 2 "The Chimera of Relvance"] -- the determination to use an essentially sacral and "vertical" ritual to express an essentially humanistic and "horizontal" meaning. Whether or not such a shift in focus should have occurred, the attempt to bring it about by appropriating the liturgy for that purpose was bound to have disastrous results. From the beginning almost everyone sensed the inappropriateness of the attempt, which drove liturgical innovators to more and more extreme experiments, and which ended by destroying virtually all symbolic continuity with the historical Church. Those who became involved in such liturgies usually found in the end that Catholic life had become literally meaningless-incoherent, alien, dead, even strange. In Robert Redfield's words, they no longer believed because they no longer understood, and they no longer understood because they no longer did the things which express understanding.

The manipulation of sacred symbols to give increased meaning to the liturgy tends instead to destroy its meaning and alienate the participants from the Church's worship.

A revolutionized liturgy which sought only to put itself at the service of man failed badly even at this task because of its failure to reflect on the function of traditional liturgy in the Church. The breakup of traditional liturgy, and the other breakups in the Church which accompanied it, were a major source of anxiety and suffering to many people, not only to those extreme conservatives who went into schism rather than accept the new Mass but equally to those ardent reformers who ended by reforming themselves out of the Church. People who had lived cohesive, stable, purposeful lives of dedication often found themselves plunged into a quasi-permanent state of confusion and unhappiness. Priests especially, whose lives had been so intimately bound up with the sacred rites, found that the core of their existence tended to unravel even as the rites themselves unraveled. Although few priests before the Council had doubted that the administration of the sacraments was the principal justification for their existence, a massive crisis of clerical identity followed the liturgical changes, in which the priest's role was variously redefined as psychologist, social worker, political activist, "change agent", or even in some instances as altogether outmoded and without function.

The fragmentation and manipulation of sacred symbolism conveyed in the most dramatic and effective way possible that the community of the Church was also fragmented, probably beyond repair. For many people a uniform liturgy was itself a profoundly important symbol of a united Church, and to the extent that highly diverse liturgies were now celebrated, whether officially or unofficially, the basic sundering of Catholic unity was symbolized.

The casual discarding of traditional symbols, often with the implication that there was something ridiculous or unsavory about them, symbolized effectively a Church slowly dying, piece by piece. The bold use of remaining symbols in very antitraditional ways showed quite dramatically that, whatever the Church might be in the future, it would be something far different from what it had been in the past. Those who felt uneasy over the new liturgies sensed that perhaps this future Church would have no place for them. Over it all a great pall of confusion hung: to what degree were these experiments the authentic will of the Council and the hierarchy? If not presently their will, did these changes represent the inevitable future which sooner or later the hierarchy would accept? Such symbolic conveyances were probably far more influential in establishing the tone of Catholic life in the later 1960s than any number of outright verbal assaults on traditional doctrines or hierarchical authority.

Changes which had aimed at promoting community and improving dialogue ended by depriving members of the Church of the most effective means they had of communicating with one another-their sacred symbols. People became keenly aware that certain symbols acted as red flags on others within the Church (rosaries, guitars, novenas, banners, etc.), and that even symbols which were generally accepted could no longer be assumed to have common meanings for everyone, might in fact have quite divergent and opposed meanings. (The very word "celebrate" came to be one of these.) Increasingly the more avant-garde members of the Church, including some of the clergy, declined to participate in official public rituals as celebrated in the churches and moved into small groups to worship, as effective a symbol as possible in showing that the Church was now a word used to describe a radically disunited community. Liturgical change tended to promote strife rather than heal it, as some people felt it went too far and others not nearly far enough. (Ritual, which serves ordinarily as a focus of a society's unity, can under certain conditions be a cause and a symbol of dissension instead.5) Highly private rituals, in the sense that they were celebrated for special groups only and for the benefit of very particular tastes, tended to show that the escalating breakup of the Church would continue. This was especially the case when the private groups ceased being distinctively Catholic, and many of their members dropped out of the Church.

Liturgical radicals did not for the most part understand adequately the role of symbol and ritual in the Church. They maintained the antiritualist bias of those who tend to see it as the compulsive repetition of meaningless acts. Yet, once the rituals were tampered with, their explosive power became evident. Mary Douglas has suggested that ritual is a function of a closely-knit social group, one which has a strong sense of its own identity and its own boundaries. The decline of ritual retards social organization, and the group tends to slide toward chaos and disintegration. The effectiveness of ritual depends on the people who use it having familiarity with one another, but at the same time it is the ritual which enables them to achieve this familiarity on a wide basis.

Significantly for the Church, a confused and disorganized society is likely also to have a confused idea of God. Secularism, including a sense that the cosmos is dominated by impersonal forces, tends to flourish in societies which have weak boundaries and whose child-raising practices encourage a strong concentration on the self rather than on the group.6 The sociologist Peter Berger describes rituals as reminders of deeply held values, and he believes that both the values and the rituals depend on a subculture which creates and sustains them.7 Bronislaw Malinowski suggests that public rituals "of solemn grandeur" are necessary to place the whole weight of the community behind particular values.8 Victor Turner points out that in effective rituals persons who may be deeply divided in other ways can meet together to sustain the cosmic order. (Thus a ritual which is too "relevant" may be ineffective because it will not transcend the divisions in the community.)9 In the words of Clifford Geertz:

For those able to embrace them and for so long as they are able to embrace them, religious symbols provide a cosmic guarantee not only for their ability to comprehend the world, but also, comprehending it, to give a precision to their feeling, a definition to their emotions, which enables them, morosely or joyfully, grimly or cavalierly, to endure the world. 10

As with every other aspect of Church life, liturgical change was both a cause and an effect of the fading of a sharp Catholic identity after the Council. It was an effect in that a misconceived ecumenism led many persons to suppose that a historical Catholic identity ought to be obliterated as much as possible. It was a cause in that experimentation with the liturgy tended toward merging it into broadly humanistic forms of celebration, with its distinctive symbolism either eradicated or redefined.

The theology which explained this new symbolism tended then in the same direction -- the sacraments as celebrations of life, for example. There was an immense loss of coherence, however, whatever may have been gained. Soon it became problematical for some people why there should be sacraments at all (or why these particular ones), why formal worship is necessary, what the value of prayer is, etc.

The organizational structure of the Church was called into question by, for example, advanced priests who undertook to "preside" at the Eucharist in a nonsacral role, unvested, seated with the congregation, merely the individual conveniently designated to play the leading part. Such symbolism led inevitably to a sense of priesthood and hierarchy as somehow impositions on the people of God. The old ritual, although it had done little to promote warmth and intimacy among worshipers, had enabled quite diverse kinds of people to worship together, had allowed Catholics to worship in many parts of the world, had allowed for a communication on the symbolic level which was now becoming more and more difficult. The idea of God did indeed become confused. Most Catholics were still able to affirm a divine reality, but practically every other aspect of it (Is God personal? Can God be said properly to exist? Does God work miracles?) was called into question, and some former staunch believers drifted into agnosticism. The fact that there were no longer in the Church solemn public rituals which could command general participation seemed to signify the absence of any common identity and any commonly held values. The Church seemed to be of less and less use to people in helping them understand or endure the universe, yet the liberation from ecclesiastical domination did not on the whole seem to make people happier or freer.

Two crucial groups of persons suffered particularly in the crisis: the clergy whose entire existence was bound up with the sacred rites, and young people who began to come of age in the period of unraveling and confusion. There has been a substantial loss of young people to the Church during the period of change, and although there are many possible reasons for this, one in particular has not been adequately recognized-that younger Catholics since the Council have had no experience of a stable and self-confident Church able to hand on its beliefs with assurance and authority. In thousands of ways what young people have perceived in the Church is a situation of seemingly boundless confusion, internal conflict, and steady disintegration. They have pronounced the liturgy and doctrines of the Church "meaningless" because they have been unable to obtain, from parents, teachers, or clergy, a coherent account of what it means to be a Catholic. The rituals which ordinarily induct the child into the community's beliefs earlier than any formal teaching have seemed confused and weak. The humanistic explanations of these rituals which have often been put forth make them seem even more confused and weak, since they offer little basis for perceiving what is unique or important about religious rituals as distinguished from innumerable secular rituals.

The reluctance of young people to enter into the life of the Church has often proceeded from their apprehension that this Church may be in the process of dying and thus offers no stable, satisfying mode of life to follow. Paradoxically, it is once more the fact that the Church did change, not that it did not, which rendered it incredible in many people's eyes. The problem has been infinitely compounded by the fact that the most extreme liturgical experimentation has often been carried on in the hope of attracting the young. Such a strategy may sometimes bring short-term benefits. But in the long run it worsens the situation by impressing even deeper on young people a sense of the weakness and incoherence of Catholic life, of a symbolism which symbolizes little beyond the confused subjective state of the participants.

In the final stage of this disintegration the traditional symbols cease to be understood altogether, and there is a pointless wallowing in the liturgical backwaters. At a German "youth Mass", a juke box plays loudly in the sanctuary, while the acolytes blow cigarette smoke at the altar instead of incense. Immediately after Communion, cokes and hotdogs are served to the participants.11 In America a priest conducts, during Mass, a rite of divorce modeled on the Catholic marriage ceremony. The theme proclaimed is "Divided We Stand", and a soloist renders "It's Too Late, Baby".12 In Holland a liturgy has as its principal focus a potter working under a spotlight.13 Counterfeit liturgies are hailed as authentic, such as Leonard Bernstein's Mass, which employs eclectic Catholic symbolism to celebrate essentially humanistic and rather shallow ideas.

There is a strong bent for syncretic ritual, in which elements are indiscriminately borrowed from various religious traditions to produce new and striking combinations. The aim is to achieve ever new and fresh experience, which is virtually the precise opposite of the aim of genuine religious ritual. Symbolically what is proclaimed is the death of the various traditions whose symbols are thus used, making them lawful prey for scavengers. It has been said of some modern wedding ceremonies:

Although more marriages nowadays seem to be performed by clergymen ... their doctrine may not be part of anyone's daily life or conduct .... The Navajo or Hopi ceremonies, the dawn or midnight, garden or woodland nuptials, the Our Relationship sermon by the bridal pair, all borrow sanction and dignity from a sacramental tradition which is probably dropped as unceremoniously as possible after the ceremony. The couple married in the woods do not live by the law of the woods, the Hopi vows do not make a Hopi marriage in a modern California setting, the girl who circles seven times around the groom or the groom who stamps on a glass may ignore the imperatives of their actions, and their conduct after the marriage may bear no relation to the ceremony that made it; indeed no rules of conduct for the future can be deduced from the ceremony.14

A preference for eclectic ritual is not only a judgment on the bankruptcy of the various traditions from which the rituals have been taken; it is also an implicit admission of one's own bankruptcy, that one no longer belongs to a people who have a distinctive way of life, a distinctive set of values, therefore a distinctive ritual. Hence this final stage of manipulation tends to be the most alienating of all, since it is, perhaps unwittingly, a celebration of one's own rootlessness.

The rejection of traditional ritual places the individual outside his community and is hence an alienating experience; it tends not toward an increase of happiness or meaning but the reverse.

Although the chronology cannot be established with precision, it appears that radical, unauthorized changes were introduced into liturgical practice earlier than radical ideas began to surface in doctrine, ecclesiastical government, or morals. The basic rites were rejected or drastically rearranged for the most part before doubts about the historic reality of Christ's Resurrection, the Trinity, the divine nature of Jesus, the priesthood, religious vows, papal and episcopal authority, and the indissolubility of marriage came to be expressed. The symbolic coherence of Catholicism was first weakened or destroyed, and the actual fabric followed afterward. So also the exodus of substantial numbers of persons from the Church followed rather than preceded the attempts to make liturgy "relevant".

The official liturgy, as well as the various manifestations of folk piety, articulate and symbolize a total moral and religious order. Thus the apparent breakdown of that system of symbols -- a breakdown which was abetted in many cases by those who were supposed to be the guardians of the ritual, the clergy conveyed the symbolic message, only dimly understood at the conscious level, that all restraints were now removed. This message soon had repercussions not only in the symbolic life of the Church but in its actual life as well: priests who became laymen, and nuns who repudiated their vows; laymen who rejected all religious authority on moral questions; radical changes of lifestyle everywhere in the Church. Religious communities which had been notoriously strict attempted to modernize almost instantaneously. Colleges which had been bastions of a genteel folk Catholicism suddenly proclaimed their secularity. Individuals who had been deeply involved in Church work gave it all up. Apparently quite stable marriages were dissolved as the former partners discovered their need to find themselves.

There was a desacralization not only of the ritual but of man as well, as enlightened Catholics hastened to adopt a utilitarian secular ethic which could permit birth control, divorce, abortion, or sex outside marriage. It came to be seen as a dubious proposition that Catholics either have or should have a distinctive moral outlook. The eclecticism of experimental liturgy became an apt symbolization of the enlightened Catholic's merging into the secular moral consensus. Avant-garde liturgies tended to focus on moral issues of current concern in the enlightened secular world, with readings and music from similarly current sources.

Mary Douglas has discussed the connection between an individual's sense of his relation to his own body and his relation to the larger body of society. An acceptance of the need for bodily control is related to an acceptance of the need for strong social organization. A penchant for social disorder may also correspond to a sense of one's alienation from his own body, which can manifest itself in a carelessness about dress and diet and a search for altered states of consciousness, especially through drugs. This alienation can take religious form in a rejection, within Catholicism, of the belief in Christ's bodily presence in the Eucharist, followed by a skepticism about the Incarnation as well.15 (Skepticism about the Incarnation has not, in recent years, taken the Docetic form of doubting that Jesus was really a man but the Arian form of doubting that he could have been fully divine.)

In accordance with this analysis it is significant that one of the basic doctrines on which the Liturgical Movement built for so many decades -- the Mystical Body of Christ -- also fell into general neglect during the era of experimentation. The sense of unity felt by the liturgical innovators was an altogether more secular and fragile thing than is expressed in that powerful image. Its decline corresponded also to a new sense of personal liberation which included giving free play to bodily needs, the rejection of strict sexual morality, benign approval of the casual hippie lifestyle, and at least a cautious neutrality toward drugs, with the willingness even to admit that they might be of some value in worship. The thirst for mystical experiences came to have nonreligious drives behind it, especially the desire to experience extreme states of consciousness which the mystics themselves had generally pronounced dangerous and inauthentic. The new sense of bodily liberation was also reflected in the new approach to worship in which the careful discipline imposed on the body in traditional liturgy gave way to a deliberate casualness, a desire to be spontaneous in gesture and posture as well as in sentiment.

Ironically, although the liturgical avant-garde talked much about community, in the end it was revealed that they were radical individualists, unconcerned about whatever community did exist in the Church and inclined to pursue policies which had the effect of weakening it still further. The notion that man's sense of God is primarily transmitted through the special forms and traditions of a particular people, or that one's moral perspective is achieved first of all in the same way, was implicitly ignored in their calculations. The worshiping community, for all the weight put on that concept, came to be a rather fragile gathering of radical individualists, and the difficulty of devising truly relevant liturgy stemmed from the fact that the personal needs and perspectives of the members of these groups were so diverse. The infinite complexity of existing communities, their dependence on tradition, common ritual, and implicit understandings, was not basically respected.

The new emphasis on community was essentially on community defined as a narrow and relatively homogeneous group. A renewed liturgy which was supposed to deepen love in the Church ended frequently enough in diverse people who were formerly able to worship together finding that now they could worship only with persons like themselves. In many parishes there came to be the "guitar Mass" for the progressives and the "silent Mass" for the traditionalists. Numerous persons quit their parishes altogether to seek out small groups of like-minded souls. Extreme traditionalists went into schism. Liturgical theorists suggested that the territorial parish was dead, precisely because people could not worship together merely on the basis of happening to live near each other. Special parishes for students and professors, lawyers, social workers, etc., were proposed. Another principle had been defined:

The destruction of sacred ritual inhibits diverse kinds of people from participating in common worship by virtue of shared transcendental beliefs, and reduces community to scattered groups held together by limited concerns of a naturalistic kind.

The drive for spontaneity in worship was a reflection of this fragmentation of community. In the pre-reformed liturgy the sense of community which permitted diverse kinds of people to worship together, usually with little personal knowledge of one another, was a strong sense of a common past, a strong loyalty to a common set of sacred symbols, and a deep implicit awareness of the purpose of the ritual. This was objective community held together by bonds of iron, a community uniting living and dead in allegiance to certain basic beliefs and symbols. The new emphasis on community shifted to a subjective experience of community rather than its objective reality. The manipulation of the symbols, and the evident revolution in belief which was occurring, destroyed much of the objective character of the community, as it found itself suffering under growing polarization and confusion. A subjective experience of community was thus a necessary substitute. Reluctant worshipers in the parishes were exhorted to pray and sing together, exchange the sign of peace warmly and enthusiastically, and try to experience "true community", while unofficial groups tried all means of stimulating this experience through planned rites.

The need to stimulate a subjective sense of warmth and community in small groups is dictated by the weakening of the larger objective community and cannot adequately replace this larger community.

Sustaining this subjective sense of community requires constantly renewed and extended efforts, but such communities tend to be fragile and of relatively short duration.

The process of sustaining a subjective sense of community in small groups further weakens the larger community by emphasizing whatever is unique, personal, and unusual in the small group, that which by definition cannot be communicated adequately to the larger group. Simultaneously the beliefs and symbols of the larger group are further appropriated by the small group for its own uses.

Despite first appearances, it came to be clear after some years of liturgical experimentation that, weakened though they were, the communities which were the established parishes and the community which was the whole Church (dismissed often by radicals as merely the "institutional Church") were stronger and more viable than the great majority of the small groups formed on the basis of what appeared to be close personal affinity and common concerns.

To the degree that a traditional community is able to maintain a sense of its past and its inherited symbols, it will retain vitality, albeit in a possibly weakened state.

Ecclesiastical reformers were concerned, following the Second Vatican Council, that Catholics moved beyond the "ghetto" of the Church and into the larger world, usually without noticing that the Catholic Church is perhaps the largest "ghetto" in the world, much larger and more diverse in its membership than any "worldly" group. However, here as elsewhere a notable irony developed: those who left the ghettos of the parishes to become part of the larger world often ended by joining even smaller and narrower ghettos than those from which they had liberated themselves -- underground church groups, encounter groups, political sects, etc.

There is a natural human tendency to affiliate with specialized groups, and the rejection of one ghetto for the sake of achieving unity with all mankind is likely to end in the establishment of newer ghettos at least as restricted as the one first rejected.

Mary Douglas has discerned three stages in the development of religion which are directly applicable to the recent history of the Catholic Church. In the first, which never applied to the Church as a whole but did apply to the majority of its members through most of its history, theological belief is implicit only, there is a fixed ritual, and sin is regarded as specific actions. In the final stage there is a tendency to disregard theology, spontaneous acts repace fixed ritual, and sin is conceived as improper attitudes, of which specific acts are merely manifestations. As the society loses its grip on the individual (here the society which is the Church), there is a renewal of romanticism, especially a great emphasis on the virtues of sincerity and honesty.16

Theology has not, of course been abandoned in the contemporary Church, but there has been a growing reluctance to define beliefs, a tendency to permit a wide range of vague understandings (of the meaning of the Eucharist, for example), and in neo-Pentecostalism a resurgence of a non theological piety in which religious feeling is primarily valued.

The precipitous decline in the practice of confession by Catholics can almost certainly be traced to a new attitude toward morality which denigrates the importance of specific, numerable acts and to a new cult of spontaneity which views the rite of confession as merely formal and hence of no value (although confessors who probe deeply into the penitent's moral life may find that this does not serve to make the experience more attractive either). Since the practice of confession has for many centuries been close to the center of Catholic piety, this is a crucial case of the inherent opposition between traditional Catholic life and the new cultural attitudes abroad in the Church.

The decline in the practice of confession -- a ritualized, austere, and private form of self-revelation -- is especially curious given the concomitant rise in popularity of other kinds of self-disclosure like encounter groups. The rejection of confession by so many advanced Catholics perhaps derives specifically from the fact that confession is a submission of the individual to the authority of the whole Church, an acknowledgment of offenses designated as sinful by that Church, and a forgiveness offered by the Church. Its rejection is, in other words, a rejection of the authority of the Church over one's life, an assertion once again of the claims of radical individualism, manifested also in the denial by so many former priests and nuns of the authority of vows (promises to God made in the presence of the whole Church) or by some lay people of the necessity of a ritual marriage ceremony or the permanent character of marital vows.

That the systematic encouragement of personal expression, without any corresponding ritual acceptance of the demands of a society, tends toward the breakdown of all communal bonds is evident in the history of many encounter groups, including for example those conducted within religious communities, where the expression of members' "true" feelings has sometimes resulted in hostilities and psychic wounds which made further community life all but impossible. (One well-known order of nuns which undertook prolonged encounter experiences suffered an irreconcilable schism within its ranks and lost the majority of its members.17)

The encounter-group rationale is merely a distillation and a refinement of an attitude which tends toward being pervasive in American society, which underlies the antiritual attitude, and which has also the tendency to undermine all stable community life. It has been described as follows:

... the predication of an essentially positive "real self" or "inner nature" which in the healthy person resists the imposition of social roles. Social relations, the family especially, either allow the self to develop naturally or layer upon it artificial identities, but in no case do they form or alter its essential nature .... Change comes from within and to this process of self-actualization man owes his first allegiance.

... Spontaneity is an important value because through it the self demonstrates its freedom from external conditioning. The exigencies of spontaneous self-actualization might have untoward consequences on the people around us but these secondary effects must be given a back seat to the primary right to grow. In any case, one need not worry overmuch because, since one's inner nature is inherently good, whatever is genuinely part of its unfolding can give little reason for concern. The Kingdom of Heaven is within each person.

... Since he [man] is passionately committed to the primary importance of his Own autonomy, it is even difficult to understand why he would be interested in a group in the first place, unless mainly as an arena for the emprise of his will. One cannot help sensing here the pathos and irony of trying to extract the gratifications of community from experience based on a dressed-up version of the old gospel of individualism. The one simply cannot be produced from the other, and in the desperation of the attempt it is possible to glimpse how keen must be the isolation of the individual supposed to be experiencing intimacy within the group.

... The web of social roles that he [the individual] finds himself ensnared in at present cannot be regarded as other than external to his being: the struggle to disentangle and cultivate his real self. Thus his "role" as parent, teacher, writer, social worker, Christian or Jew, is important only in a secondary way and does not have to be submitted to careful scrutiny .... For such an individual ... learning to block out the external pressures ... is a process not often conducive to distinguishing between the claims of social conformity and the claims of ethical or religious imperatives-they both come from the outside.18

All of this can perhaps yield a few additional principles:

The established ritual of a community reflects among other things the ways in which the competing claims of common traditions and the desires of the various members have been negotiated and reconciled.

A strong sense of conflict between the demands of the traditions and the needs of the individual is evidence of the radical breakdown of the spirit of community, and attempts to ease the conflict through radical alteration of the traditions merely tend to hasten the community's actual dissolution.

The breakdown of these communal bonds tends to validate expressions of unchecked egotism.


1 Patrick Regan, D.S.B., "The Change behind the Changes", Worship, XL, 1 (January, 1966), p. 38.

2 Natural Symbols, pp. 1-2, 8, II, 47.

3 Ibid., pp. 49-51.

4 Ibid., pp. 9, 38.

5 Geertz. "Ritual and Social Change: a Javanese Example". American Anthropologist, XLIX. I (February. 1957). pp. 32-54.

6 Natural Symbols, pp. 13-14, 19, 30, 33, 55, 139, 141.

7 The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (Garden City, N.Y., 1967), pp. 40, 50.

8 Magic, Science, and Religion (Garden City, N.Y., 1955), p. 67.

9 "Passages, Margins, and Poverty", Worship, XLVI, 7 (September, 1972), p. 398.

10 "Religion as a Cultural System", The Religious Situation: 1968, ed. Donald R. Cutler (Boston, 1968), p. 659.

11 Reported by Adolph Schalk, "A Mixed Picture", Commonweal, May 25,1973, p. 287.

12" 'Rite of Divorce' Enacted during Mass", The National Catholic Reporter, November 3, 1972, p. 17.

13 Dejong, "Liturgical Developments in Holland", Liturgy in Transition, ed. H. Schmidt (Concilium, LXIllI971j), p. 148.

14 Sonya Rudikoff, "Marriage and Household", Commentary, June, 1973, p. 59.

15 Natural Symbols, pp. 64-65, 160-61, 165.

16 Ibid., pp. 31, 35.

17 The Immaculate Heart Sisters of Los Angeles. See the account by William R. Coulson, Groups, Gimmicks, and Instant Gurus, an Examination of Encounter Groups and Their Distortions (New York, 1972), pp. 99, 130-31, 147.

18 Alan L. Mintz, "Encounter Groups and Other Panaceas", Commentary, July, 1973, pp. 48-49.

Copyright © James Hitchcock. All rights reserved.
Online edition published with permission.

Preface -- 1995 Edition

Preface to the First Edition - 1974 Edition

Chapter 1 - The Liturgical Revolution -- Published in the Adoremus Bulletin, November 2009

Chapter 2 - The Chimera of Relevance

Chapter 3 - The Cult of Spontaneity

Chapter 4 - The Loss of History -- Published in the Adoremus Bulletin, June 2006

Chapter 5 - The Death of Community

Chapter 6 - Folk Religion

Chapter 7 - The Reformed Liturgy -- Published in the Adoremus Bulletin, April 1996

Chapter 8 - The Recovery of the Sacred


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