Saturday, February 18, 2006

"Enlightenment" and the Mass

Zenit News Agency interviews Father Jonathan Robinson here.

The highlights:
Cardinal John Henry Newman said that bad practice is based on confused and false principles, and it is by an often bitter experience that we finally see the truth.

Oratorian Father Jonathan Robinson concurs -- especially in the case of the contemporary Mass.

In his book "The Mass and Modernity: Walking to Heaven Backward" (Ignatius), the superior of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri in Toronto and rector of St. Philip's Seminary asserts that confused and false principles have seriously damaged the liturgy.

Father Robinson shared with ZENIT how the Enlightenment and its philosophers influenced Westerners' understanding of God, man, society, religion and community -- and how Catholics have come to worship God today.

Q: How is your book different from the plethora of books that are being published regularly about the Mass?

Father Robinson: There are many excellent books that are, as you say, being published regularly about the Mass. They are, however, "in house" books.

By that I mean they discuss the worship of the Church within the framework of the Church's documents about liturgy and show, often conclusively, that there is an enormous gap between what is in the documents and how they are applied.

What I have tried to do in my book is to step outside this ecclesiastical framework and examine how the Enlightenment and Enlightenment-era philosophers -- especially Kant, Hegel and their successors -- changed how people in the West understand and perceive God, man, society, religion, community and much more.

Then, I trace the effects of these changes on the way Catholics have come to worship God. I maintain that the effect of these changes has been to deform the liturgy, even to the point where God is often barely acknowledged.

The present liturgical situation matters. It matters not only for the internal of domestic health of the Church, but also for the effectiveness of her mission in the modern world.

Q: The subtitle of the book is "Walking to Heaven Backward." Can you explain its meaning?

Father Robinson: The phrase is from a sermon of Newman's where he writes:

"We advance to the truth by experience of error; we succeed through failures. We know not how to do right except by having done wrong … we grope about by touch, not by sight, and so by a miserable experience exhaust the possible modes of acting till nought is left, but truth, remaining. Such is the process by which we succeed; we walk to heaven backward; we drive our arrows at a mark, and think him most successful, whose shortcomings are the least."

Newman was not preaching the modern idiocy that we have to sin in order to be virtuous, but he was reminding us that bad practice is based on confused and false principles, and it is by an often bitter experience that we finally see the truth a bit more clearly.

I think that confused and false principles have seriously damaged the liturgy. That means that any reform, or renewal, of the liturgy will cause us to walk to heaven backward.

We will have to walk to heaven backward without any sign posts and without any certainty except for the promises of Christ to his Church; but if we believe in the Church we know that out of disorder and wrong turns God's truth will ultimately prevail.

Q: What is "modernity"? What is "postmodernity"? How have these phenomena specifically affected Catholic liturgy?

Father Robinson: By "modernity" I mean the set of principles and beliefs that have created our modern secularized society.

We live in a world for which the language of traditional Christianity is a dead letter. The intellectual frame work, the images, and the moral teaching of the faith no longer color the ordinary consciousness as they once did.

There are many different strands in the history of thought that have contributed to this condition. The difficulty for the Christian is that many of these strands contain valuable elements.

There is the Enlightenment with its concern for justice, human rights and due process; or again "the rise of modern science" with its applications to health and technology; or the Romantic movement, with its historical, communitarian and imaginative preoccupations.

All these in different ways have persuasive and desirable elements. Nonetheless the overall thrust that characterizes them is hostile to the Christian revelation. The efforts of various sorts of Christians to accommodate the Gospel in order to make it acceptable to the world had proved, not surprisingly, destructive of the Christian message.

I think the attitudes and concepts that we associate with "postmodernism" is toward "liberation" -- especially liberation from the necessity of making judgments.

Postmodernists are not required to reject or accept anything at all; they are at home with everything from the Nicene Creed to hard pornography, from kitsch to high culture.

This, they believe, is their escape from what they regard as the harsh, scientific, masculine sort of thinking of modernism. The postmodernists seem to think that they are living beyond value, beyond right and wrong, beyond truth and falsehood.

I think this attitude has fearful consequences for freedom, for sanity and for any serious version of the Catholic faith.

Furthermore, I believe postmodernism is used by the self-anointed inheritors of the Enlightenment as one more tool to destroy the authority of tradition, and to wreck the partnership -- of which Edmund Burke wrote so eloquently -- between the dead, the living and yet unborn, and is the only real guarantee of a freedom not based on the whims of sociology departments and high court judges.

Whether this is viable politics I do not really know; but I believe that something like Burke's attitude is necessary to Catholicism if the Church is to recover its liturgical worship.
G.K. Chesterson once alluded to the Enlightenment as ultimately Martin Luther's legacy--and the vengeance of the Manicheans. I believe he once said that Martin Luther had severed the integrity between reason and faith; and nature and grace. He had chosen Faith and Grace, while the advocates of the enlightenment had chosen reason and nature afterward. His wisdom is surely borne out today.

Many pursue just aims from an entirely inadequite philosophical foundation. Their well-intentioned efforts often result in disastrously contradictory ends. Fr. Robinson observes this dynamic at play among contemporary Catholics in the way many relate to the Mass. Much of the implementation of the Second Vatican Council has become the disfigured "Spirit of Vatican II" manipulations that continue to distort Christ's image today. Poor homeletics, abysmal catechism, liturgical innovations that say more about the worshippers than the worshipped and a growing loss of intimacy have become the sad fruits of this misguided effort.

The Truth is much more exciting and enlivening. God himself invites us to celebrate his union with us through the paschal mystery of his own Son's self-sacrifice on our behalf. When we open ourselves to this mystery, and accept it fully in our hearts and minds, we encounter a miracle: his Presence in our lives! The more we re-capture the awe of this encounter, the more alive our faith, and our witness, will become. That's truly good news. Because the world needs this witness now more than ever.

The Shadow grows, but the Light will never surrender to it. Let us bear the light as we've been called to do.