May 15, 1996

Matter Matters: Our Most Dangerous Heresies May be the Most Purely Spiritual

Online Edition – Vol. II, No. 3: May/June 1996

by Irene Colligan Groot

On the surface, attacks on Catholic art appear to be skirmishes over aesthetics or a misapplication of the documents of Vatican II. In reality, they are direct hits on the Incarnation. Nothing drives that point home quite like a Jungian cross-without-Christ invading your home parish, which is what happened in the Diocese of San Jose, California where I live and worship.

My friend Dale and I sometimes talk about what’s ailing my parish, which I’ll call St. Perdu’s. We don’t agree a lot of the time he thinks I take certain small points like church art too seriously and a recent conversation certainly fell into that category.

We talked about the removal of my parish crucifix. “This new Iconoclastic Heresy, the attack on matter through the destruction of religious art, could well be a turning point in world history,” I told Dale.

He laughed. “That reminds me of the Blues and the Greens, the two teams of charioteers in Constantinople during the reign of Emperor Justinian. The fans’ rivalry kept the Byzantine capital in constant turmoil.” Dale’s point was that folks were crazy to get too caught up in things that don’t much matterlike chariot races and arcane heresies.

I disagree. Take the crucifix, for example. Layfolks like me are combatants in a war of ideas. Our battleground is one of words and symbols of which the crucifix is pre-eminent. The crucifix defines a world of objective reality; the fact that God took on human form, lived among us for 33 years and died at a real place on the map. We think like Flannery O’Connor who said, “Jesus is a fact“!

The Ancient East Rebirthed in Suburbia
Those who remove crucifixes take a different view. Their perspective is closer to the Eastern spiritualities like Hinduism, Buddhism, Gnosticism than to Catholicism. Modern iconoclasts create reality within their own minds: their beliefs are not anchored in space or time. They call their mindset the “Spirit” of Vatican II.

Our parish is a case in point. My husband and I belonged to this warm compassionate modern American parish for 16 years. The parish motto “The Church is People” defines St. Perdu’s as a friendly sort of place where defending doctrines like the reality of the Real Presence, the Ten Commandments, the Mass-as-Sacrifice, or Original Sin is considered “divisive.” Its large congregation of well educated affluent folks focus, rather, on creating community in the “spirit” of Vatican II.

In 1992, the the parish council decided to freshen the multi-purpose look of the church. Its first step was to remove our one and only crucifix, a 24 x 18 inch processional cross. This was accomplished in the midst of hearty fellowshipping, not at the point of an M-16. Several parishoners crafted a wooden processional cross with a large central hole to replace the cross with a corpus. Few complained. I did. I wrote the parish council.

The parish liturgist responded that the crucifix was removed after “careful study of the official documents of the church which address the subject. I wish I could provide you with information from canon law, encyclicals, etc.,” she wrote “but devotional customs are not discussed in such documents. Vatican II did not address this specific matter of crucifixes either. Instead it charged local dioceses to establish commissions to help with such decisions.”

She enclosed with her response: 1) a bulletin insert explaining the the cross-with-a-hole, 2) published remarks by San Jose’s Bishop Pierre du Maine, 3) chapter six of Environment and Art in Catholic Worship [EACW], and 4) an excerpt from the General Instruction of the Roman Missal [GIRM].

Jung at Heart
I nearly spilled my cappuccino when I read Catholics Should Look Like the Cross. This bulletin insert, written by liturgical designer John Buscemi, explained the new cross-with-a-hole as a complex theological and psychological statement rooted in the doctrines of Swiss psychiatrist and afficianado of Eastern religions, Carl Jung. The hole in the cross represented a “birth canal” through which the “community” is “birthed.”

If the ancient East is rebirthed in suburbia, then Carl Jung is the attending physician. That birth canal sounded strangely familiar. I checked Jung’s introduction to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, an occult Buddhist text he termed, “My constant companion.” Jung wrote, “Human lifemakes it possible to abide in the perpetual light of voidness, without clinging to any object and thus to rest on the hub of the wheel of rebirth, freed from all illusion of genesis and decay.”

Buscemi clearly does not like crucifixes. “It is important that we not limit the multi-layered meaning of the cross,” opined our liturgical designer. “Its message and power is [sic] far larger than seeing it as the death instrument of Jesus.”

Nor does he approve of history. Buscemi describes his cross design as “larger than the historical Jesus” and more meaningful than “the literal instrument of the death of Jesus.” The designer theologizes, “The cross transcends culture, time, and geography The cross is larger than an afternoon on Calvary. It is larger than the historical Jesus The cross is truly transhistorical.”

“Had the Abomination of Desolation entered the sanctuary?” I wondered. I wrote the parish council. “Exactly whose birth canal is represented here? God the Father’s? God the Mother’s? Jesus’? Some other god/dess entirely?” I never did get an answer. Bottom line: In the Jungian world of create-your-own-reality, it simply doesn’t matter. One devotee told me, “I can picture myself in the opening.” “Oy vey!” I thought to myself, “this isn’t Christianity at all.”

Ecclesiastical Mia’s
Bishop du Maine’s published comments on crucifix removals in our diocese demonstrate the kind of hierarchial support the laity too often receive when they attempt to combat Ms. Zeitgeist and the Jungian iconoclasts. The bishop wrote in Valley Catholic, the diocesan paper of San Jose, responding to a distressed parishioner whose parish crucifix had been removed: “Discretion is left to pastors and bishops in this regard. My personal preference is for the traditional crucifix but I cannot impose such a choice as a rule.”

In an era in which the crucifix is reduced to body jewelry and submerged in urine as publicly funded art, Catholic laity too rarely receive help from their leaders in defending it, even when abuses enter the sanctuary. Our parish liturgist was right. Her enclosures, Environment and Art in Catholic Worship and the General Instruction of the Roman Missal do not even mention the word “crucifix.”

[Ed. Note: The official Latin edition of GIRM uses the word crux. Although crux connotes crucifix as well as cross, the word is always translated ‘cross’ in the English edition .)

The Resurrect-ifix
A few tenacious souls attempted to hang the crucifix in an inconspicuous spot away from the sanctuary where it would not provoke controversy. Others worried that the crucifix would “frightened the children.” It was removed, said the parish liturgist, because the crucifix was not “artistically worthy and appropriate.” I wrote back. “Jesus did not die on a designer cross!”

In the spirit of community, the parish purchased an attractively carved and painted 6-foot statue of Jesus on an 8-foot cross. It is 75% resurrected, 25% crucified. The left hand is crucified, the right hand resurrected. Jesus has a resurrected head and pierced but resurrected feet. The right hand reaches out and appears to wave. The statue is mounted above the entrance to the right of the sanctuary. Our crucifix is still missing and the cross with a birth canal continues in use and on display.

Carl Jung would be pleased. He didn’t approve of historical facts interfering with symbolic expressions of inner experience. “The statement that Christ rose from the dead is to be understood not literally but symbolically,” he wrote in The Undiscovered Self, “then it is capable of various interpretations which do not collide with knowledge.”

The Angel of Light Takes on the Church Horizontal
Heresies, like iconoclasm, have the tendency to look inconsequential; much like those Byzantine chariot races to which Dale compared them. Yet, ideas have consequences. Saint John Damascene, the eighth century defender of the holy icons, wrote, “A small thing is not a small thing when it leads to something great; and it is no small matter to forsake the ancient tradition of the Church.”

Catholic images, like the historical representation of the crucifixion, are indispensable safeguards of the doctrine of the Incarnation. They affirm the sacredness of matter. In Jesus Christ, God became one of us, material. Our art, by incarnating the spiritual in matter and time makes that point clear. Tampering with Catholic art destabilizes the Catholic theology and philosophy.

“I do not worship matter,” Saint John Damascene explains. “I worship the Creator of matter who became matter for my sake, who willed to take His abode in matter; who worked out my salvation through matter. Never will I cease honoring the matter which wrought my salvation!” Vatican II’s directives on art in Sacrosanctum Concilium, share Saint John’s view. The Eastern iconoclastic “Spirit of Vatican II” comes from another source altogether.

We’ve been so busy combatting atheistic materialism that we haven’t noticed: the Devil of the ’90s is entering by a different door. He’s cloaked himself in the purely spiritual. The evidence of mentalism is everywhere. In a San Jose chain bookstore, I measured 150 linear feet of Jungian, Hindu, Gnostic, Buddhist, New Age, occult titles vs. 5 feet of Christian-lite.

That’s not the only way Eastern thought has gone mainstream. Consider the Supreme Court Decision of Planned Parenthood vs. Casey. “At the heart of liberty,” wrote Justices Kennedy, O’Connor and Souter, “is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

Somehow old battles against anti-Incarnational enemies have slipped our mind. It is time to remember that the most dangerous heresies have been the most purely spiritual. The image of the incarnate God, hanging on a cross on Golgotha, pierces right through the abstract church inside the skull where reality can mean anything at all. It is time to use our Catholic images to unambiguously affirm our commitment to objective reality.

Matter matters.

(Irene Colligan Groot is married to Peter Groot, teaches in San Jose, California and is director of the Damascene Art League a group dedicated to encouraging the use of computer graphics in religious art.)


Irene Colligan Groot