Catholicism


This is an article that I wrote a few years ago, before I became Orthodox. I didn’t get to publishing it, and once I had become Orthodox I hesitated to do so as it discusses issues that I was dealing with as a Catholic. However, I have shared it with a few people over the last few years, and some of their reactions have made me think that it may be worth making it available more broadly, hence my decision to post it here. However, I’m not posting it to initiate discussion or debate and so am closing the comments section on this post. While the issues that it raises were crucial for me at the time – and I still stand by everything that I argued – I am no longer Catholic and don’t really want to get involved in discussing these things now.

Eighteen years ago, on a rainy winter’s day, I attended Mass in a small village on the west coast of South Africa. The event is etched in my memory, for it is among the most “traditional” Catholic liturgies I ever attended. The elderly priest was regarded as something of a maverick by his religious confreres; he had been a leading progressive before the Second Vatican Council but had become resolutely opposed to many of the changes following the Council and was now left to do his own thing in this back-of-beyond fishing village. I presume that he must have used the Novus Ordo, for anything else would have been unthinkable at the time for a priest who, despite his oddities, remained in communion with his bishop and the See of Rome. But it was a liturgy unlike any I had experienced. While my memory is vague on details, the one thing that has remained with me is that not only did people kneel at an altar rail to receive communion on the tongue, but that an altar boy held a sort of plate under their chins in order catch any fragment of the Host that might fall.

If this liturgical detail has stuck in my mind, then that was partly because of my own reaction, and that of the friends who accompanied me. We were all theologically educated, post-conciliar Catholics. We cared deeply about the liturgy, had been formed by some of the best trends in liturgical renewal, and would certainly not have thought of ourselves as irreverent. Nor would we have welcomed the idea that we were snobbish – in fact I had just written a Master’s thesis that argued for the importance of rehabilitating popular religion. And yet what now strikes me about my own reaction is its extraordinary arrogance and insensitivity. For my reaction, like that of my friends, was to find the whole thing rather amusing, an example of the backwardness of this reactionary priest.

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I jotted these points down sometime last year. While I am now in a different space, I have been very conscious in the last few years of needing to understand the deeper roots of the current Catholic crisis. I don’t intend to get into polemical discussions on Catholicism, and the points mentioned here are by no means exhaustive and could be further developed. But, especially in the light of some of the rather interesting discussion that has been going in response to me earlier muddled thoughts (which I’m afraid that I haven’t been keeping up with all that well – I think that this is the first time that there has been so much discussion on my blog, some of it very insightful), I offer them for what they’re worth.

In an article published in 1965, the late Augustine scholar Frits van der Meer expressed some of his concerns about what was happening on the Dutch liturgical scene. Now I have in recent years become more aware of the extreme nature of Dutch liturgical disintegration, but despite this I was shocked on reading this article to discover that it happened so early on. One moment one had uniform Tridentine Masses everywhere and only six months later priests were making up their own Eucharistic canons comprised of “part Hippolytus, part Taizé, part sucked out of their own thumbs”. Had this been happening in 1975, I could, if not exactly have understood it, then at least have half expected it, for the practices that are apparently widespread today must have started sometime and the late 1960s seem a likely time for such disintegration to begin. But I find it shocking that it could have happened so suddenly and this raises questions for me about the state of the Church before this time. If the foundations crumbled so rapidly then there must have been something seriously wrong long before this.

Van der Meer blames this disintegration on what he terms “the unconscious betrayal of the clergy” who succumbed to the tyranny of “a powerful invisible demon: the fashion of the day”. Pastors who had once faithfully followed the fashions of the First Friday or Fatima, now panicked at the thought of being zealous for something that was no longer fashionable. He may very well be right, but that simply begs the question of how such superficiality could have been so widespread among the clergy.

This brings me to the second article, an interview with Père Michel van Parys, the former abbot of Chevetogne, in which he discusses the social and ecclesial background that accompanied the liturgical renewal and that made the failure of the liturgical movement almost inevitable. He speaks about the discontinuity and break in the transmission of tradition and argues that “the tradition is disrupted when it is only learnt in an intellectual manner and no longer celebrated … if there is no repetition in the liturgy and no memory and no beauty, which are fundamental human dimensions, then the liturgy is reduced to banality. It achieves a certain success but that success does not last long.”[1]

The third was an article on spiritual paternity by Dom Silouane, a French Benedictine of the Abbey of St Wandrille.[2] In it he made the point that the patristic renewal has resulted better access to the works of the Fathers, but that this has largely remained an academic phenomenon and has not really been accompanied in a renewal in patristic spirituality.


[1] Michel van Parys. Verzegelde Bronnen Borrelen Weer. Over monastieke spiritualiteit en oecumene. Bonheiden, Abdij Bethlehem, 1996. 23-26.

[2] Buisson Ardent. Cahiers Saint-Silouane l’Athonite, 7. 101-114.

I wrote this a couple of days ago and have been hesitating about posting it as I’m not sure that I express things adequately, and I don’t want to offend people. But I can’t help thinking that there are things that need to be said… and if I don’t post it now it will be too old.

Since posting on this topic before, which was really an attempt to draw attention to a dialogue Deacon Stephen was trying to get underway at Thandanani, I have been wondering how and whether I should say anything more, and I suppose that this post is really an attempt to get my thoughts together. The Thandanani discussion has been pretty much limited to Deacon Stephen and me and we seem to more or less agree with each other, which is very nice but doesn’t really take things further. I’ve also followed some recent Eirenikon discussions, and participated a bit, but realised that I was quite uncomfortable with that in a way that I couldn’t properly articulate. What was presented was worthwhile, but I could not help but feel that there was an underlying dynamic with the discussion that I was not comfortable with. More recently I have been struck by an interview with Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) of Pergamon which Father Milovan Katanic posted and by a post on Orthodox hostility to Catholicism by Father Gregory Jensen.

Now, as I said, I’m not sure that I should be getting involved in such discussions – apart from the fact that I’m even less than a neophyte, I probably have other things that I should be attending to. But because of the space that I have been in in the last couple of years, I have become aware that there is much that is left unspoken in the ways in which Orthodox and Catholics relate to one another, and that it is perhaps especially this unspoken layer that needs to be brought to light.

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A reader has alerted me to the death of Dom André Louf, ocso. I hadn’t checked the website of the Order recently, but they only had a short death notice here, which was a bit surprising given his stature. He died on Monday and was buried on Wednesday in the abbey of  Mont des Cats in France. He was abbot of Mont des Cats for several decades, having become abbot in his thirties, and there are fascinating references in Thomas Merton’s journals about his correspondence with this young abbot. For decades he longed for the eremitical life, but his pleas to the General Chapter of the his Order to be allowed to step down as abbot in order to pursue this were consistently refused. Finally in the 1990s he was able to step down and retreat to a hermitage in the south of France where he applied himself to the Syrian Fathers, translating the second series of Saint Isaac’s treatises into French, among other things.

I reported on two conferences that he gave at a colloquium on the Syrian Fathers two years ago: a conference on Simeon of Taibouthèh and a presentation on the Liturgy of the Heart. This was the only time that I met him and although he didn’t seem particularly frail to me, people who had known him earlier commented that he had aged. Which, I suppose, he had every right to have done.

Dom André certainly had a great influence both within the Cistercian Order and beyond. He belonged to that generation of post-conciliar Catholic leaders who were involved in a genuine renewal and was also someone deeply influenced by Eastern Christianity. Several of his books have been translated into English, including  The Cistercian Way , Grace Can Do More: Spiritual Accompaniment & Spiritual Growth  and Teach Us to Pray . The most recent work of his that I read was a paper on humility, and the problems that contemporary westerners have with it, that he gave in Bose and that has been published as The Way of Humility . I don’t have it with me at the moment or else I would quote something from it – will do so again.

I was going to entitle this post “Rest in peace” and then realised that I had better get used to saying “Memory eternal.” I don’t know if there’s a theological difference, but it reminded me of the chapter that I have just read of Father Schmemann, and which I shall post on more fully soon, in which he speaks memory:

The remembrance of Christ is the entry into his love, making us brothers and neighbours, “brethren” in his ministry. His life and presence in us and “among” us is certified only by our love for each other and for all whom God has sent into, has included in our life, and this means above all in the remembrance of each other and in the commemoration of each other in Christ. Therefore, in bringing his sacrifice to the altar, we create the memory of each other, we identify each other as living in Christ and being united with him and in him.

In this commemoration there is no distinction between those who live and those who have fallen asleep, for God “is not God of the dead, but of the living” (Mt 22:32). …

Alexander Schmemann, The Eucharist Sacrament of the Kingdom: Sacrament of the Kingdom. (Crestwood, N.Y.: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1988) 130.

Update:  In a comment Martin has drawn attention to a more extensive obituary on the Bose website.

‘We are not born Christians, we become Christians’ (Tertullian). This ‘becoming’ is the space in which Christian asceticism reveals its meaning. The word asceticism is suspect today, if not completely absurd and incomprehensible for many people, including – and this is particularly significant – quite a few Christians. Derived from the Greek verb askein (to train or practise), the term asceticism indicates a form of methodical training, a repeated exercise, an effort directed towards the acquisition of a specific ability or area of competence. We might think of an athlete, an artist, or a soldier – each trains by repeating over and over the same movements or gestures in order to reach a high level of performance. Asceticism, therefore, is first of all a human necessity, because our growth and ‘humanization’ includes a dimension of interior growth that should correspond to our physical development. We need to know how to say ‘no’ if we want to be able to say ‘yes’: ‘When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways,’ writes St Paul (1 Corinthians 13.11). In Christian life, which is rebirth to a new life in Christ and the adaptation of our own life to God’s life, we need to learn ‘unnatural’ capacities such as prayer and love for our enemies – and this is impossible without practice and constant effort. Unfortunately, the current cultural myth of spontaneity and permanent adolescence, which sees effort and authenticity as opposed to one another, is a serious obstacle to human maturation and makes it difficult for us to understand why asceticism is essential to spiritual growth. …

Asceticism is at the service of the Christian revelation that attests that our true freedom is revealed when we are open to the gift of God and capable of giving ourselves for love of God and our neighbour. Our ascetic discipline has the effect of liberating us from philautia (self-love, egocentrism) and transforming us from individuals into people capable of communion, love, and the free gift of ourselves. Again, the words of a desert father reveal that the early Christian tradition recognized its own errors: ‘Many have prostrated themselves without the slightest discernment, and have left without gaining anything at all. Our mouths smell bad because of our fasting, we know the Scriptures by heart, we recite all of the Psalms, but we do not have what God seeks – love and humility.’ We need to be intelligent and discerning in our asceticism if we want to please God, and if we want to become more, and not less, human. An intelligent asceticism can help us in our task of making our life a masterpiece, a work of art. Perhaps it is not by chance that the verb askein, in ancient Greek literature, is also used to designate the work of the artist. This, then, is the goal of asceticism: to situate the life of the Christian in the domain of beauty, which in Christianity is another name for holiness.

Enzo Bianchi,  Words of Spirituality, (SPCK, 2002) 3-5.

I had been intending to simply review this book, but it is not such an easy book to review, comprising forty five shortish reflections. However, it is not a compilation of isolated reflections, but rather an intertwined whole in which different themes on the spiritual life evoke and complement one another in a sort of spiral movement. I think that the best that I can do is to continue to provide some extracts from the book which may entice readers to seek it out as it really is a book that can only be read – and re-read – rather than summarised.

However, it may be good to say something to introduce the author and his community as he (and they) do not seem to be that well-known in the English speaking world. And – rather ironically – they often seem to be better known among Orthodox than among Catholics.

Brother Enzo Bianchi is the founder and prior of the monastic community of Bose in northern Italy and a respected Christian voice in Italy. (He’s also an excellent chef, but that’s another story). Founded in the years immediately after the Second Vatican Council, they are one of the more successful examples of monastic renewal in the Catholic Church. Strictly speaking they are not a Catholic community for their members come from different Churches, but they are after all in Italy and so most of them are Catholic. I spent three months with them last year and my reaction was that this is post-conciliar Catholicism at (or near) its best. They will not appeal to those people who are scandalised by religious who don’t wear habits all the time or want a return to Tridentine liturgy and ultramontanist theology. But neither are they willing to sacrifice the Gospel to the spirit of the age. They are very clearly rooted in the biblical and patristic tradition, and have invested much in forming people in this. They have a publishing house which both translates works from other languages and publishes books by the brothers and sisters and other Italian authors.

The brothers and sisters of Bose are known in some quarters for their commitment to ecumenism, and particularly for their contacts with the Orthodox Church. An important part of this is the conference on Orthodox spirituality that is held every year in September and they also have contacts with Protestant and Anglican groups. Their approach to ecumenism is clearly one of seeking to reach back to a common tradition and they see the monastic tradition as having a particular role in this regard. Thus they are not into imitating Orthodox liturgy or customs – their liturgy is clearly western and post-conciliar – but are rather interested in discerning the common roots. And this has resulted in a serious concentration on Scripture and the Fathers.

It is a great shame that more of their books are not translated into English. As far as I am aware, the only other book by Brother Enzo that has appeared in English is Praying the Word: An Introduction to Lectio Divina (Cistercian Studies Series). For anyone with Italian translation skills, it would be a worthwhile project to make more of them available.

I haven’t done much blog reading recently and last week as I was looking at Phil Sumpter’s Narrative and Ontology and regretting that I will probably never have time to catch up on his posts on Brevard Childs, one of his links caught my eye. (He has this blogroll which actually tells you what people are writing on which is very useful – I’m not sure if WordPress can do that but I must investigate when I get down to some blog housekeeping…) I saw a post entitled The Arrogant Papal Brow by Father Milovan Katanic of Again and Again and, thinking that the pope might actually have gone and done something significant, went and clicked on it. I got really infuriated when I read it as there was nothing new, but it seems that there has been a whole lot of talk in the blogosphere about an imminent reunion of the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. This is, quite frankly, just scaremongering and I was reminded of the Patriarch of Constantinople’s encyclical for the Sunday of Othodoxy this year where he wrote:

In their polemical argumentation, these critics of the restoration of unity among Christians do not even hesitate to distort reality in order to deceive and arouse the faithful. … They disseminate false rumors that union between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches is imminent, while they know well that the differences discussed in these theological dialogues remain numerous and require lengthy debate; moreover, union is not decided by theological commissions but by Church Synods. They assert that the Pope will supposedly subjugate the Orthodox, because the latter submit to dialogue with the Roman Catholics!

I thought of posting on this then, but was concerned that I’d just end up ranting. I also realised that these Orthodox reactions – which whenever there is contact between Orthodox and Catholic hierarchs scream that the Orthodox Church is about to capitulate to papal arrogance, the pan-ecumenical heresy etc. etc. – are in a sense simply a mirror image of some of the reactions which I have experienced among Catholics. All too often they also see such contacts as indicating that we are on the verge of unity, that the differences between the Churches have actually been sorted out, or are simply unimportant, and that all we need to do is say a few prayers and be polite to one another and that life can go on as it was.

When faced with either of these extremes who seem to think that unity is imminent – the one horrified at the prospect and the other delighted at it – I have tended to wonder: am I living on another planet? If people have such a minimal grasp on reality, then where can one start to talk? And are people interested in really listening? I do believe that unity is important and that dialogue is important. But then it must start from reality as it is and should enable one to really listen to the issues involved. And the issues are not simply the pope and the filioque, which may or may not be resolved in the official dialogues; they also go much deeper and touch on the lives of ordinary believers.

I was therefore pleased when Deacon Stephen wrote a very sensible post on the subject. He is by no means rejecting dialogue but argues that the resolution of the issues separating Orthodox and Catholics will require considerably more than polite contact between the hierarchs of both Churches.

Unity is a lot more than Orthodox and Roman Catholic bishops visiting and being polite to each other. I’m all in favour of them doing that, and even doing the same thing with Anglican and Zionist bishops, but it doesn’t mean that reunion is imminent.

Some think that it is only a few minor theological issues that can be sorted out quickly. But it’s not just papal primacy and the Filioque that keep us apart, but a millennium of history. We differ in soteriology (Anselm’s theory of the atonement, which swept the west, never got much traction in Orthodoxy), ecclesiology (the Orthodox temple versus the Roman monolith and the Protestant heap of stones) and missiology (Roman missiologists believe that Orthodox missiology is derived from Origen).

All these have led to a different culture and ethos, and this is just as much theology as the kind of theology that is written in books. And so before there can be any reunion, these things must be faced and examined.

There was some reaction to his post which had the potential to become a rather interesting discussion, but instead of doing that there he has proposed continuing the discussion at the Thandanani forum. (“Thandanani is a Zulu word meaning “love one another” and is a space for Christians from different backgrounds to learn more about each other in an atmosphere of mutual respect). If there are readers who are genuinely concerned with dialogue and unity, or with understanding the issues involved between Orthodox and Catholics, I would encourage them to continue this discussion there.

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As an aside, in case there are readers who don’t follow his blogs, Deacon Stephen (Steve Hayes – I never quite know what to do with this title thing!) is one of the soundest Orthodox bloggers that I’m aware of and he has had some excellent posts – Spiritual but not religious was particularly good – on Khanya recently which I thought of recommending but never got to. Of course, the fact that he’s a South African is also a recommendation!

I have recently read the account of Archimandrite Placide Deseille’s conversion to Orthodoxy. Well, “read” might not be the best word as it is in French and my French leaves much to be desired. But, although I didn’t have time to sit with a dictionary and read it all carefully, I understood enough to find it interesting. Father Placide was a Cistercian monk (of Bellefontaine in France) and one of the leading scholars of the Order and so I have always been rather curious about his story. While there are aspects to it with which I am less than entirely comfortable, notably his rebaptism on Mount Athos, I must admit that his tone is more irenic than I had been led to believe. It is also fascinating for the light that it sheds on Cistercian life in the middle decades of the twentieth centuries. He speaks with fondness and appreciation for his superiors and formators and the grounding that he received in the Fathers of the Church and the monastic tradition. But this appreciation for the Fathers was not shared by everyone: he tells of one superior who, while admitting that there were good things in the Fathers, argued that there was no true theology in the Church before Saint Thomas Aquinas and no mysticism before Saint Bernard, and even that had to wait until Saint John of the Cross before reaching maturity! Perhaps the less said about that the better.

What I find interesting though is his discussion of what happened to the preconciliar biblical, liturgical and patristic renewal. He writes:

I expected much of these efforts but two things disturbed me. On the one hand, they clearly had a limited audience and did not reach the majority of French diocesan clergy. On the other hand, a powerful and vital party in the Roman Church was engaged in the Catholic Action movement and in pastoral research emerging from the worker priest movement. I was moved by a real sympathy for the multitude of initiatives and the undeniable apostolic fervour that they expressed. But at the same time I was aware that, despite the partial convergence, the climate there was different to that of the biblical and patristic renewal. The praxis of Catholic Action implied an ecclesiology that was without doubt that of the Counter Reformation and which did not sit easily with that of the ancient Church. One also saw in this movement a tendency to the types of celebrations that were foreign to the spirit of the traditional liturgies. I encountered in all this a new incarnation of modern Catholicism rather than living return to the sources which would have demanded a radical renewal.

I did not sufficiently appreciate that it was the second current, rather than the first, that represented the real logic of modern Catholicism and which would in all likelihood neutralise and supplant the other tendencies. I was hoping that the dry bones would revive, that all that the traditional elements that the Roman Church had conserved in its institutions and liturgy would be rediscovered as a tonic to nourish modern humanity. I was hoping that everything of the Catholicism of the Counter Reformation that was alien to the great tradition of the Church would give way to a resurrection of the “Western Orthodoxy” of the first centuries as a result of the meeting of the ancient heritage and the living forces of the present.

While he welcomed the Council “with great joy,” he gradually realised the ambiguity of the various currents of ideas and his hopes for a return to the sources began to fade. The Council did not so much cause this as reveal what was going on. Much of the traditional institutions, and to a certain extent the liturgy, was able to survive because of strong central power. But people, especially the clergy, had to a large extent lost the deeper meaning and this would lead to a rebuilding on a new basis.

While the rapid disintegration of twentieth century Catholicism was troubling, Father Placide came to realise that it had deeper roots and was part of a certain logic of Catholicism itself.

This led me to reflect on the religious history of the West, and especially on the profound changes that one can identify in all areas between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries. In this period one sees changes in the institutions of the Church (notably the understanding of the papacy in the Gregorian reform), the sacramental rites (abandoning baptism by emersion, communion under two species, the deprecative formula for absolution etc.), doctrine (introduction of the Filioque in the Symbol, development of the scholastic method in theology). At the same time one saw the appearance of a new religious art that was naturalistic and broke with the canons of traditional Christian art that were elaborated during the course of the patristic period.

(If anyone is interested, Aaron Taylor of Logismoi recently posted on an essay of Fr Placide Deseille on Orthodoxy and Catholicism).