Sep 15, 2007

Transgressive Liturgy

Online Edition: September 2007

Vol. XIII, No. 6

Transgressive Liturgy

How the therapeutic mentality affects the culture and Catholic worship

by James Hitchcock

The noted sociologist Philip Rieff died in 2006, leaving behind a series of works1 that offer highly original insights into the general state both of modern culture and of religion. Although he said little about liturgy as such, his theories provide an enlightening way of understanding the liturgical crisis.

Rieff was a devoted Jew who, although not friendly to the Catholic Church overall, called himself an “honorary Christian” because he loved the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Bach’s B Minor Mass. He respected the work of Cardinal Newman and cited the future Pope Benedict XVI on the necessity of prohibitions against abortion, divorce, and homosexuality.

The Three “Cultures”

Rieff’s theory of history broadly identified three successive cultures, each of which had some kind of moral idea at its heart. The First (primitive) Culture regarded law merely as “taboo” — fear of magical forces in the universe. The Second Culture, beginning with the ancient Israelites, made law into morality or “interdict” — sacred prohibitions — based on an authority that came from on high. The Third Culture (“Deathworks”) is the modern assault on the Second Culture in the name of human autonomy, fueled by “transgressions” against interdicts — deliberate attacks on sacred laws.

Contrary to the modern prejudice against “legalism”, Judaism made law central to its faith; and Rieff asked,

How are you on the trivial old question of sabbath-keeping? Is any order worthy of its name without its strict sabbaths? No is the first word of resistance; it remains the word that needs deepest, freshest, most constant relearning … to articulate any culture….

Individuality can exist only in relationship to higher authority; there can be no self-knowledge except through knowledge of a creator, which is received through a creed, that is, through beliefs that are undeniable.

Faith is therefore at the heart of every culture, giving institutions the power to bind and loose through reasons that sink so deeply into the self as to be understood implicitly. The purpose of culture is to teach people that they cannot be open to the possibility of everything, so that cultures survive only if their members acknowledge certain kinds of behavior while refusing even to dream of other kinds:

Gods choose; men are chosen. What men lose when they become as free as gods is precisely that sense of being chosen, which encourages them, in their gratitude, to take their subsequent choices seriously.

The classical idea of the good was the sacrifice of the self, which meant that sin was the triumph of self-respect over the respect due to others. Guilt, which stems from respect for something other than the self, is therefore necessarily the ruling emotion of every true culture.

Rieff connected prayer intimately with the interdicts, in that prayer must be addressed to a being who is uniquely unchangeable and the one who prays must be aware of himself as a guilty person. Fear is necessary to any sacred order, a means whereby it teaches elemental lessons — law must come before love, negative commandments must prepare for positive acts, and the benediction “God bless you” must be balanced by an implicit “God curse you”.

Rieff’s Second Culture was the environment in which liturgy existed prior to the Second Vatican Council — the recognition of the “mysterium tremendum et fascinans”,2 the awe-struck sense of the holy, the entering into a sacred place where the worshipper felt acutely unworthy and “fear of the Lord” was appropriate.

Interdicts and Guilt

Liturgy was interdictive in that, while it was fundamentally affirmative, it also required boundaries and prohibitions, both a physically enclosed sacred space and “rubrics” — specific requirements by which the necessary conditions of authentic worship were defined — in order to support a sense of reverence. Violations of rubrics or of sacred space were transgressive, thereby instilling dread in the transgressor.

Liturgy, precisely because it was the most sacred action in which human beings could take part, demanded the highest degree of self-abnegation and therefore carried the highest degree of guilt (“Lord, I am not worthy”).

Rieff understood Jesus to have intensified the relationship between faith and guilt, by defining as guilt even those transgressions committed only in the heart, thus deepening a law that he found hypocritical. Thus, far from separating law from love, Christianity made them mutually necessary.

By identifying itself with the body of Christ, the Church then gained the ultimate power to restore the individual to the community, reinforced through sacramental action connected to guilt. Baptism was the ritual enactment of the interdicts in the life of the baptized, and each subsequent sacrament attacked transgressiveness in its various manifestations (for example, marriage overcame sexual disorder).

But the Church was also sophisticated enough to allow the interdicts to be communicated in fresh ways, as it did in recognizing new saints, visions, and religious orders, being neither too quick to recognize spiritual gifts nor so bureaucratic as to stifle them.

Remissions and Transgressions in the “Therapeutic Culture”

In recognition of the fragility of human nature, every culture also organizes “remissions” by which men can release themselves to some degree from heavy demands, but only in order to submit to the interdicts once more, with renewed fidelity.

Traditional Catholic liturgy embodied some remissions. While worshippers were expected to maintain an attitude of reverent attention, striving to enter fully into the sacred mysteries, there were also times of relative relaxation — sitting rather than kneeling; homilies that were not ritualistic and might be emotional and related to people’s personal lives; even — although professional liturgists condemned them — private devotions during Mass.

Prior to the Second Vatican Council, the Church tended to be wary of all forms of psychotherapy, but afterward, various therapeutic techniques were uncritically embraced, especially by clergy and religious, as nothing less than new modes of salvation.

Sigmund Freud, according to Rieff, promised to relieve men from anxiety, especially the anxiety of guilt:

Formerly, if men were miserable, they went to church so as to find a rationale for their misery; they did not expect to be happy — this idea is Greek, not Christian or Jewish.

Religious man was born to be saved; psychological man was born to be pleased, as “I believe” — the cry of the ascetic — lost precedence to “one feels.”

Freud dismissed religion, convinced that it had lost its psychological power, so that he merely contended against prudery as prudery was already in full retreat. He dismissed the sense of guilt as something caused by attempting to be too moral, something that caused “moral inflation” to be followed inevitably by “moral recession”, which made it necessary to destroy the first and most intrusive tyranny — conscience itself. Freud thus transformed conscience from a burden into a means of self-approval.

Unlike the religious culture that it superseded, the therapeutic culture has neither demons nor villains, so that the therapeutic individual opposes nothing and practices everything. “Toleration” becomes the highest virtue and “rigidity” the gravest fault.

Therapeutic culture reduces interdicts merely to taboos, that is, to essentially irrational and neurotic compulsions arising out of fear and ignorance, and in the post-conciliar Church there were increasingly shrill polemics against “legalism”, as though interdicts have no spiritual meaning. The rare disorder of scrupulosity was treated as the root of all belief, a sickness that had to be constantly fought against.

Thus properly “renewed” Catholics had to demonstrate their highly relaxed attitude toward the interdicts, a relaxation that led most notably to many thousands of priests and religious abandoning their vocations.

Because therapeutic man needs a wide range of releases, a culture of amusement dominates, assaulting the interdicts in order to break the stultifying demands of daily life. The culture particularly condemns the “sin” of boredom, making entertainment one of its highest goods.

It scarcely occurred to earlier generations of worshippers that liturgy was in some way supposed to keep them entertained but, despite the many efforts to make it “meaningful” after the Council, complaints that it was boring were often taken as devastating criticisms.

Charismas — Gifts From On High

Rieff identified Max Weber, the nineteenth-century founder of sociology, as, along with Freud, the founder of the modern culture of transgression, because of his misunderstanding of “charisma”.

Charismas are divine inspirations —unmerited spiritual gifts from on high that concretely embody spiritual ideals and point the way toward right action. They are inherently credal and interdictory, in that they make binding claims based on undeniable truth.

The truly charismatic figure who embodies these gifts appears only at the time of the failure of a culture and its institutional forms, as Jesus did in late Judaism. In a way this figure is transgressive, in that he looks both forward to a new interdictory order and backward to the order that is being transcended.

The true reformer seeks to lay burdens on people, making life more difficult, liberating his followers from the external obedience only in order to shackle them to a higher truth to which he too is shackled. He possesses knowledge of “what not to do”, demanding that the law of love be followed by a series of “shalt nots”.

Charisms and Transgressions

But Weber assumed the Protestant opposition between priesthood and charisma, defining the “institutional church” as a break with the original charisma of Jesus: thereby Weber aligned charisma with transgression, making it available to break open the husk of institutions. He was unable to see, for example, that in the early Church bishops were chosen for their charismatic qualities — that there can in fact be organizations that embody authentic spiritual gifts.

The very existence of transgressions implies the existence of interdicts against which they are directed; but Weber did not understand that grace only comes through renunciation and that true charisma must therefore be interdictory. He posited “new experiences” as the key to religion, failing to see that some “gifts” are destructive; that there is a discipline of the demonic that accompanies the failure of interdicts.

For Freud also, “the systematic hunting down of all settled convictions” was essential to the therapeutic culture. Whereas in credal cultures guilt is the appropriate response to real transgressions, Freud replaced the internal moral discipline of charisma with “the Superego” — commands to oneself derived from the “father figure” against whom rebellion is inevitable, a process that Freud defined as neurotic.

Liturgical Crisis: Flight from Guilt

Post-conciliar Catholic “renewal” was immediately caught up in the general cultural crisis of which Rieff was the most acute diagnostician, and the ultimate root of the liturgical crisis was precisely the flight from the sense of guilt, something that required a radical redefinition of the nature of worship itself, even though the Council did not officially support such a redefinition.

Liturgical innovators avoided credal affirmations precisely in order to escape acknowledgement of human sinfulness, and with remarkable speed the central meaning of the Mass — the salvation of sinners through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross — was obscured, even denied, in favor of celebrating human goodness, bubbling up in an atmosphere of mutual affirmation.

But ultimately, the command of the therapeutic culture is not mere tolerance but “thou shalt not believe”: not the beginning of a new faith but the dissolution of all faith.

A new and dynamic acceptance of disorder, in love with life and destructive of it, has been loosed upon the world…. No longer the Saint but the instinctual Everyman, twisting his neck inside the starched collar of culture, is the new common ideal, to whom men offer prayers for deliverance from their inherited renunciations.

The culture of impulse, based on an infinite number of wants elevated to the level of needs, requires the self to find salvation precisely in the breaking of corporate identities, a suspicion of all normative institutions, the transgression of interdicts, “elaborately argued anti-religions”, all aiming to confirm men in their “devastating illusions of individuality and freedom”.

Many of the general reforms of the Council, such as easing the laws of fast and abstinence, were intended to be remissive. One of the purposes of the liturgical reforms after the Council was to reduce the effort required to make liturgy meaningful. This included simplifying rubrics, eliminating elements of ritual deemed no longer necessary or significant, above all by permitting the use of the vernacular, altogether making liturgy accessible with less strenuous effort.

But as presented in the mass media (and often by official voices as well), the Council came to seem little more than a great release from the “rigidity” of laws and doctrines. Pope John XXIII was turned into the icon of a kindly grandfather who indulged his offspring; and, building on skeptical modern biblical criticism, the figure of Jesus was often detached from the Church and used to undermine creeds and interdicts, making Him into a wholly remissive figure who merely seeks to lift burdens.

Without official warrant, the post-conciliar liturgical style tended to place yet further remissions at its very center — the persona of the celebrant, spontaneous comments and jokes scattered throughout the rite, extemporaneous prayers whose very unfamiliarity announced the omission of something required, “dialogue” between priest and congregation, a popular musical idiom — all of which culminated in a prolonged and ostentatious “kiss of peace” as the high point of the celebration, a remission that overshadowed the act of worship itself.

The preferred mode of attending Mass became routinely remissive through the new custom of congregants casually chatting and laughing immediately before and after the rite, revealing that they could scarcely wait to be released from the burdens of solemnity and silence.

But within a culture the roles of interdict, remission, and transgression can change places. And when the releasing devices — the remissions — become more compelling than the controls themselves, cultural revolution occurs. The therapeutic culture inexorably transforms remissions into transgressions, and in the Church too remission moved inexorably towards transgression.

This was most immediately manifest in the liturgy, as such things as standing during the Consecration of the Mass, receiving Communion in the hand, and lay ministers of Communion released worshippers from ancient interdicts. Whatever theoretical arguments might be made for such practices, they shocked many Catholics, as their devisers knew they would. The fact that after a while some of these acts came themselves to be regarded as sacred does not diminish their original transgressive affect.

Rubrics, which at one time had been treated with punctilious reverence, began to be experienced as burdensome and arbitrary, as unwarranted impositions on the worshippers. By ignoring or deliberately transgressing rubrics worshippers assert precisely what a culture cannot allow — the expression of everything, the refusal to be one thing and not another. As rubrics are reduced to mere taboos, transgression against them becomes almost obligatory.

Leaders Collapse — Cultural Suicide

In every culture a moral elite demonstrates the necessary balance of control and remission. The death of culture begins with the inability of those elites to communicate its ideals in inwardly compelling ways. Freud, however, taught authority to see in itself only the vestiges of taboo, causing many of the cultural elite unwittingly to go over to what he called the “mass” — those who have no love for instinctual renunciation — in the most elaborate act of cultural suicide Western intellectuals have yet staged.

The crisis of culture thus flows from the top down. Children cannot be obedient if their parents are not; but the new model is the relentlessly supportive parent for whom, as the child soon discovers, “no” often means “yes”. Interdicts are likely to be broken most readily by those who hold office, so that the most basic obligation of leaders is to discipline themselves. The highest use of the interdicts is to punish the powerful, since if fear is instilled in them the powerless will follow.

There was little popular demand for liturgical change at the time of the Council, since, even if people understood that liturgical forms could be changed, they tended to accept those forms as given, which is the normal way of regarding the sacred. Thus, ironically, the interdicts were first broken by those whose sacred duty was to protect them.

Liturgical changes were initially commanded by clergy solely by virtue of their offices, but many clergy then used those offices to undermine the very idea of hierarchical authority, claiming in its place a charismatic authority of divine inspiration, invoking the promptings of “the Spirit”. The shepherd sought to bind his flock not to laws to which he was himself obedient but solely to his own teachings, holding power over his followers by encouraging their transgressions, turning discipleship into membership in an anti-credal group.

Reverence for the interdicts was weakened in lay people above all by seeing their priests’ transgressions, both in their personal lives and in their obligatory irreverence at Mass.

The attempt to level a sacred order can only be experienced as guilt, but there can be no guilt in the absence of presiding presences against whom one can rebel, so that particular churches are rife with bitter quarrels exactly in proportion to the degree that they retain vestiges of genuine authority. “Renewed” Catholics assume Weber’s opposition between priestly office and charisma, often to the point of cynically reducing all authority to a desire for power and control.

But the post-conciliar Church has shown itself to be nervously anti-punitive. Simplistically understood, Vatican II promised to replace fear with love, obscuring even for many well-meaning people the fact that fear teaches essential and elemental lessons. Once devoid of all fear, the apparently firm moral structure of the Church began to collapse with remarkable speed.

“Creativity” Justifies Transgression

Numerous “charismatic” figures have appeared since the Council, both in the specific sense of the Charismatic Movement and the broader sense of people who claim to possess spiritual gifts. Some of these establish their authenticity by reaffirming the authority of the interdicts, but others substitute their own “gifts” for credal truth, and nowhere more than in liturgy have such “gifts” been invoked to justify transgressions. (Even the doctrinally orthodox Charismatic Movement has an uneasy relationship to official worship, seeking as much as possible to inject spontaneous elements into its liturgies.)

But the language of spontaneity embodies hostility and contempt for authority, for culture itself. Encomia like “originality” and “creativity” are freely conferred, and “breakthroughs” can be appreciated much more quickly than what has been broken through.

This “creativity” is often explicitly a denial of credal truth. Some congregations omit the Nicene Creed or replace it with self-composed “statements of faith”, and the most “advanced” liturgies incorporate completely secular elements or elements of non-Christian religions, making the ultimate claim of being open to all possibilities.

“Modern” liturgy demands to be experienced above all not as humble and awe-struck participation in a divine action but as an extension of the human, a creation of the community, with no “imposition” from the outside. The farther it moves away from official worship — the more “creative” it becomes — the more its devisers claim inspiration that negates the “official Church”. Deviant liturgies are treated as more authentic than official worship, because they well up from the “inspiration” of the participants.

In the therapeutic culture the only possible greatness is transgressive, which makes the destruction of received forms the essence of “creativity”. For example, there can no longer be religious art except things like Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, which fuses the highest images with the lowest, with the aim of making the Second Culture disgusting.

Man has become an artist who is given an empty canvas that he fills with “the likeness of panic and emptiness”, arising from a sense that there are no realities beyond those he himself constructs — a realization that fuels a “hideous new anger” arising from the belief that all limits are humiliations; that self-surrender can only be a defeat; that the external world is a vast stranger who makes inconvenient demands on the self.

Shedding the Burdensome Past

The past then becomes a burden that threatens the present and must be mastered, so that the unique modern achievement is to be sprung loose from all historical memory. But, Rieff demands, “How dare we dismiss the authority of the past as if we understood it? From the past we gain our regulating weight, to hold against the lightness of our acts.”

Some of the often rancorous debates over Catholic liturgy cannot be resolved because they are fundamentally irrational, touching deep nerves in people that they often do not understand. The use of the Latin language, Gothic architecture, traditional vestments, and other such things incite in liturgical liberals a panicky fear of being pulled back into a world in which guilt would again be appropriate.

Liturgy has been unstable and contentious since the Council because there has been, quite literally, change for the sake of change. Traditions handed down from the past are givens that the individual is required to accept, hence, in a therapeutic culture, are experienced as inauthentic and as a threat to personal autonomy.

Thus for many self-consciously “progressive” Catholics particular liturgical innovations are less important than the process of innovation itself. They have a compulsion to violate rubrics both in order to throw off the burdens of authority and from the sense that there are no meaningful realities except what they themselves construct. For such people “renewal” is solely a process of liberation from the past.

But the destruction of taboos is also vengeful, so that in transgressive liturgy sacred symbols must be violated, by using prohibited kinds of communion bread, for example; or by violating sacred space by minimizing, even eliminating, the separation between the sanctuary and the body of the church, narrowing the distance between celebrant and worshippers to the point where the congregation actually joins the celebrant around the altar. The preferred new style of church architecture is in fact not church architecture at all, merely a highly self-consciously “modern” style of building that could serve any number of secular purposes and proclaims a kind of spiritual emptiness.

Sometimes liturgy has “advanced” to the stage of being actually blasphemous,3 as the participants make every effort to escape from the interdicts, to the point where, in the ultimate irony, liturgy itself becomes an assault on the sacred.

Rieff saw that Christian culture placed the morality of sexuality very near its center, aiming not to destroy sex but to control and spiritualize natural drives; to liberate the highest powers of personality from blockage by the lower; to hedge, by procreation, sex’s destructive power. While at times sexuality can mark a personal victory, Rieff judged, it quickly becomes a defeat, so that subsequent victory is won only by once more triumphing over it through chastity.

Rieff thought that neither hierarchs nor heresiarchs truly understood what was at stake in the celibacy issue, which was the fact that the transgressive sense was bound to break out first in the erotic sphere. This judgment was borne out when the post-conciliar relaxation of interdicts brought the crisis of liturgy and the crisis of sexuality together on the question of celibacy — because the priest was obligated both to renounce sexual activity and to guard the integrity of the sacred rites.

Once “reform” was defined as discarding burdens and making life easier, the relaxed style of liturgy expressed the priest’s personal sense of moral relaxation, which he tried to communicate to the people. Many priests went from seeking remission from the burdens of their calling to full-scale rebellion against its demands. In many congregations the ultimate liturgical remission was the sudden disappearance of the priest, who laid down his burden entirely.

Moral and Liturgical Transgression Linked in the Therapeutic Culture

The transgressiveness of modern Catholicism followed the larger culture especially in attacking almost all sexual interdicts, beginning with contraception and moving through divorce, fornication, homosexuality, and finally abortion, with the liturgical disorders paralleling and to some extent reinforcing sexual disorders.

Not all devotees of experimental liturgy violate the sexual interdicts, nor are all devotees of traditional liturgy chaste. People who commit sexual sins may experience guilt, while people who live chastely may dissent from sexual interdicts — the difference between sins of the flesh and the sin of pride, between sin and transgressiveness. But the same urge to be released from burdens governs both sexual and liturgical revolt.

Even “therapeutics” continue to be attracted to the idea of the charismatic, a condition which, having been defined by Freud as neurotic, requires therapy to overcome. The modern psychotherapist has no priestly powers and plays the role of the original authority figure only in order to teach people to discard their craving for authority, to make them immune to discipleship.

After the Council some Catholics, especially those in vowed religious life, were powerfully attracted to therapies such as “encounter groups” that were in one sense sacramental, in that they promised a kind of salvation, but in a deeper sense were anti-sacramental, because they offered salvation not from sin but precisely from the sense of sin.

As Rieff noted, “deconversion experiences [are] central to the self-improving case histories of therapeutics”. The very possibility of genuine authority elicits a therapeutic response that thwarts the gift of grace — perhaps the dominant narrative of contemporary Catholic life being accounts of individuals escaping from the stifling rigidity of their faith.

The strategic advantage in any culture lies with its critics, who may actually understand the culture better than its defenders. Priests and churches were specialists in defense in earlier cultures, but sociologists proposed that the teacher replace the priest and rational explanation replace sacred interdicts.

Meaning and “Meaninglessness”

The belief that liturgy could be explained did much to undermine the sense of the sacred, leading to a puritanical stripping away of “meaningless” rites and didactic “explanations” of rites that denied their charisma by making them seem mere human inventions that were ultimately superfluous. If the priest was the first organizer of meaning, the sociologist is the last, making Weber’s science of meaning into the science of meaninglessness.

The modern quest for “meaning” is merely another manifestation of what Rieff called “the unprecedented, vulgar belief that all experience is worth having”.

Faith can then grow respectable again, as one entertainable and passing personal experience among many others, to enhance the interest of living freed from communal purpose.

Thus men may still believe in God, but not in humble acknowledgement of the creator of the universe, only because such belief is personally necessary or fulfilling.

C. G. Jung proved to be more popular than Freud, because he promised peace and resolution in ways Freud did not, offering

… a pantheon of psychoanalyzed god-terms from which men could choose their spiritual medicine … for the sake of those for whom a god is the need of needs.

But Freud’s “strong non-existent God” is to be preferred to Jung’s “weak existing one”, Rieff judged. (Jung’s amorphous religiosity has influence in the Church partly through the Myers-Briggs personality test — often administered to seminarians — that attempts to classify people according to Jungian “archetypes”.)

Privatized Religion

Soon after the Council the “secular city” gave way to the “New Age” in which no belief can be called superstitious if it serves someone’s needs, something that was almost inconceivable at the time of the Council and demonstrating how little “reformers” really understood the culture to which they were so eager to relate. Occult neo-primitivism fills the void left by a retreating Christianity, not as an influx of genuine charisma, but merely as another form of self-expressive transgression.

On the “conservative” side of the post-conciliar Church there has occurred an almost endless multiplication of visions and private revelations that, while perhaps orthodox in intent, nonetheless carry transgressive possibilities, in that they have achieved popular credibility without regard for official ecclesiastical approval and are treated by their devotees as direct incursions of charisma, independent of established sacramental channels. Even among some orthodox people the ultimate criterion of religious practice is the subjective satisfactions it brings to its practitioners.

Rieff also saw that solemn ritual can become mere spectacle in a faithless age, “retaining just enough archaism to provide that lovely dark patina they call ‘faith’”.

Rieff believed that new interdicts are required, as against creating life in the laboratory and destroying it in the abortion clinic. Abortion, infanticide, and homosexuality are almost casually anti-religious and sacrilegious in nature, and are manifestations of the “liberation movement downward in the sacred order”. Sex must include shame but, Rieff observed, homosexuals in particular parade their shamelessness, while the feminist failure to understand the fundamental reality of faith and guilt makes their protests “confused and sinister”.

Some of Rieff’s most important work is only now being published, after his death, because in his later years he seems to have despaired of being able to exert any influence on the culture. But whether or not he believed in “charisma” as an actual power from on high, Christians know that indeed it does exist and that, as has so often happened in the history of civilization, it will inevitably work its saving effects.

1 See especially The Triumph of the Therapeutic (New York: Harper and Row, 1966), Sacred Order/Social Order (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006), and the posthumous Charisma (New York: Pantheon, 2007).
2 Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, tr. John W. Harvey (New York: Galaxy, 1958).
3 See the numerous examples in Hitchcock, The Recovery of the Sacred (New York: Seabury Press, 1974).


James Hitchcock is professor of history at St. Louis University and author of many essays and books, including The Recovery of the Sacred, The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life, and most recently an intellectual biography of Christopher Dawson now awaiting publication. His regular column for the Catholic press is also on the web site of Women for Faith & Family (



James F. Hitchcock