Recovery of the Sacred Chapter 6
Dec 31, 2007

Recovery of the Sacred Chapter 6

Recovery of the Sacred Chapter 6

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Adoremus, Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy

The Recovery of the Sacred
Reforming the Reformed Liturgy

Chapter Six – Folk Religion

by James Hitchcock

From the beginning advocates of liturgical change recognized two principal sources of opposition: the hierarchy and older clergy most of whom had shown little enthusiasm for the Liturgical Movement even at its most moderate, and the masses of lay people who seemed inordinately attached to traditional ways. (There was not even much agitation for the vernacular outside the circles of professional liturgists.) The Second Vatican Council witnessed a remarkable shift on the part of the bishops, who rather unexpectedly accepted almost the whole program of the Liturgical Movement, although few bishops gave any support to the radical experiments which followed. Lay people remained a problem, although there was a gradual acceptance of the new ways and even, after a while, limited enthusiasm.

The process of liturgical change laid bare the largest contradiction in the whole of renewal, however, in that a keynote of the new Church was supposed to be the rights of the laity; yet in this as in other matters few laity were consulted as to their wishes, and lay resistance to change was dealt with by a combination of condescending persuasion and authoritarian commands.

Thomas Merton had warned about "the type of zeal which does great harm to the liturgy. It is what makes the simple and ordinary Christian afraid of Liturgy with a capital L", and which made popular devotions more important to many people than the Mass itself.1 A prominent priest-liturgist rejoiced during the Council that reformers had chosen not to attack popular devotions, vulnerable though they were to criticism, but he warned that the Liturgical Movement’s chief danger, on the eve of its victory, was the temptation to compromise, which he thought it would resist because it was "too old and too wise to indulge in half-hearted measures or compromise proposals". He saw in the liturgists a "praiseworthy devotion to truth and freedom, to a reasonable and equitable solution", but felt that through a desire to accommodate every legitimate claim, "having scrupulously avoided any apparent excess or extreme", they would destroy their own bargaining position. Those who favored the vernacular, for example, had bent over backward to reassure those who favored Latin. They did not demand that "every syllable of public prayer should be in the language of the one praying". He found little desire to reform the Roman Canon; at best minor changes were needed. But he warned that even moderate changes might be rejected if liturgists were not bold enough.2

A future president of the Liturgical Conference took occasion, at the 1963 Liturgical Week, to praise the new catechists for their moderation and charity, concluding that "if they must bear witness to a truth which is not fully known by all, they do so gently, lest they trip up their brother." But six years later, following the final Liturgical Week in Milwaukee, he was driven to dismiss his critics as "stiff-assed honkies".3 In retrospect an executive secretary of the Conference recalled that liturgists had put up a moderate front, thinking "Don’t alienate the skittish bishops, now that we want their votes."4

As the new rites were in the process of being introduced, a priest-liturgist prominent in the Conference published an enthusiastic exposition of their benefits, showing in detail their superiority to the old ways. In the process he ridiculed traditionalists, whose principal motivation he thought could only be insecurity. He compared liturgists to health officers sent into the tropics by colonial governments and wondered whether the natives would have sense enough to listen for their own good. Warming to his theme, he asserted boldly that those who resisted the new rites "in a very important sense, don’t matter. (Everyone matters tremendously, of course; we mean their concerns are ultimately not important ones.) God can save the worriers and bring them to heaven somehow." Such people, he thought, had "nothing vital to say". Although professing his respect for the "genius and talents of all people", he also expressed regret at the popularity of the cults of the saints among Catholics. Finally, in case persuasion alone had not been enough to convince the skeptics, he reminded his readers that, as to the new liturgy, "It’s the Law!" and concluded by recalling Christ’s words "If you love me keep my commandments." Later he was to confess that the laity frightened him, and he recorded his impression that each Sunday thousands of people trooped into the churches to participate in "nothing"!5

Before long the laity, with their ingrained habits of piety, began to seem almost like the enemy. A church architect urged that churches be built without side chapels so that people would be discouraged from engaging in private prayer. He also thought it was wrong to put the altar at the center of the church because other activities are just as important as what occurs at the holy table.6 Sounding what quickly became a major theme of radical reformers, a lawyer told the 1966 Liturgical Week that the people in suburban parishes were in love with banalities and fleeing from life. Such parishes were at best "harmless rest camps", although "social psychologists see the flight to insulated residential areas … in pathological terms". Suburbanites were characterized as courting amnesia, and he expressed fear lest special liturgical groups of, for example, bankers be formed, since such people were incapable of understanding the gospel.7 As already noted, other prominent liturgists were condemning the people’S proclivities toward "magic", dismissing them as unchristian, characterizing their piety as "senile", and charging that they worshiped the rites themselves, not the God of the rites.

In time the major official changes, especially the vernacular itself, came to be accepted by most of the laity. Resistance to liturgical change, especially unauthorized and radical experiments, was motivated not only by the unfamiliarity of the innovations, however, but also by the accurate perception by many of the laity that such experiments were directed at them as subjects, victims, or enemies. The innovators believed something was radically wrong with the Catholic Church, and what they increasingly decided was principally wrong was the people themselves and their benighted attitudes. Liturgy, far from achieving peace and community in the Church, became a growing source of irritation and strife not only because its new diversity reflected and promoted disunity but because the drive for change was seen to proceed from a deep contempt for the mainstream of the Church. The wells were poisoned almost from the beginning.

The criticisms which liturgists directed at popular Catholicism were varied and at least to some degree valid. They charged that it obscured the importance of the Mass behind a plethora of noneucharistic devotions, that the latter were frequently dubious from a theological standpoint and even unintentionally heretical, that most of the laity failed to appreciate the deep significance of many of the rites, that these rites were sometimes entered into with a passive and magical attitude, and that much of popular piety was sentimental and in bad taste. In justifying the liturgical changes reformers appealed ceaselessly to the authority of the Second Vatican Council, and official sanctions (including excommunication) were invoked against those who clung to the old ways. Ceaseless appeal was also made to the example of the early Church, to which all the innovations were supposedly designed to return.

The actual development of liturgical change, as distinct from its theoretical justification, soon indicated, however, that innovators were inclined to indulge almost without end their own evolving tastes, while continuing to keep a rather tight rein on conservatives. (Amid all the talk about "liturgical pluralism", no prominent reformer proposed authorizing the Mass of Pius V for those who were willing even to endure excommunication in order to keep it.)

Popular devotions were pruned to allow the Mass to stand out in unhidden glory. In many parishes, despite what the Vatican Council had advised, priests simply suppressed novenas, removed statues which had been the focus· of popular cults, stopped celebrating Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, and refused to reintroduce them when asked by parishioners. Priests who, in this atmosphere, hung banners proclaiming "Peace" and "Love" in the churches could not understand why these were sometimes interpreted as acts of aggression. Numerous ons were preached instructing the faithful on the shallowness of their religious attitudes, although the preachers themselves had been among those encouraging such attitudes a short time ,fore. Within four years of the Council a liturgist could note somewhat sadly that there had been a precipitous and measurable decline in all devotional practices, and no evident substitutes were forthcoming. (Such things as Bible vigils generally failed to take hold.) He noted that a whole way of life had been undermined, and that it had been done in the name of the liturgy.8

All this might have been to the good if it had indeed led to a revitalized eucharistic piety. But among those who liked the new liturgy least were many who had been intensely devoted to the Mass all their lives, had risen early almost every day of the year to get to Communion, and were now sometimes treated by the clergy as problem cases, fanatics to be humored. (Especially distasteful to the liturgists was such people’s lack of enthusiasm for singing and praying in unison at 6 A.M.) Mass attendance fell off steadily and measurably in the years following the Council. Most significantly, liturgists themselves began to show evident doubts about the importance of the Mass. Many of those who had most ardently supported the official changes expressed keen disappointment with the results and set out to look for congenial experimental celebrations. Among advanced liturgists, the central importance of the Eucharist was not quite denied, but its significance became less and less clear, interpretations of it became more and more diverse, its structure was increasingly subject to alteration, and in some experimental groups it was definitely shoved into the background. Its primacy over other devotions had been based on the belief that it was the Sacrifice of the Body and Blood of Christ; if it was now to be primarily a celebration of human community it was not at all clear why other celebrations were not equally important.

In criticizing popular piety from a theological standpoint, the Liturgical Movement, in this as in other ways, had sought to promote an increase of orthodoxy in the Church, the suppression even of innocent and unco~scious heresy. Those who heard themselves called material heretics, however, discovered before long that orthodoxy was not at all the keynote of the advanced reformers, that they Were prepared to tolerate all manner of diverse theological opinion and even to obliterate the category of heresy altogether. Experimental Eucharists became a major forum for the exposition of daring theological opinions. Those who had ceaselessly reminded the laity of their obligation to follow the decrees of the Council now often prided themselves on their own defiance of the hierarchy, including the pope, and sometimes dismissed the Second Vatican Council as rather limited and irrelevant in its concerns and certainly as lacking in any ultimate authority.

Although originally patronized for their lack of appreciation of the depths of liturgical riches found in the Church, many laymen soon discovered that liturgists themselves were routinely pronouncing much of this richness "meaningless" and "irrelevant". Although advanced priests and laymen in private sometimes ridiculed elderly widows for their "magical beliefs", an even more blatant interest in magic was treated with respect when sophisticated college students took it up a few years later. (A Dominican theologian, while approving the demythologizing of Catholic liturgy which had taken place, also bestowed his blessing on various of the fashionable new occult "churches". 9)

In one area especially, sophisticated reformers ought to have had unimpeachable credentials: artistic significance and good taste. Thomas Merton had been especially strong in denouncing a popular religious art which led away "from the realm of intuition and of mystery into the more superficial level of sentimental fantasy". He added:

… subjective emotionalism tends to lessen the true force of the symbol of the cross, and to create a diversion in favor of dramatic appeal which is not universal. It may strongly affect certain types and temperaments, but it will also, by this very fact, distract or even repel others of diverse character. It is precisely this emotional tone of subjectivity which paves the way for caricature.

But our liturgical designers, including perhaps chiefly those most innocent and fervent of them, the sisters, have ingenuously adopted the advertising technique ….

No one could have foreseen when these words were written that as liturgical "reform" gathered steam fashionable nuns, now perhaps a little less innocent and fervent, would quite consciously and deliberately produce religious art copied from advertising (Wonder Bread, United Air Lines, Hallmark Cards), which would be hung on chapel walls all over the country. Other of the new banners eschewed religious symbolism for hortatory and "inspirational" sayings, like "Remember that today is the first day of the rest of your life", just as Father Merton had warned:

Hence the liturgical "illustration" and "decoration" is to advertise certain possibilities of emotional satisfaction which we can make our own if we go to work and stir up the appropriate affections in the depths of our own soul. …

I do not deny that there are some people for whom this may work. But I question the fact that it is the full and true traditional function of sacred art.

On the contrary I think it represents a degradation and an impoverishment of Christian symbolism. I think it makes art a destructive and dissipating force …. 10

These remarks, which crystallized much of the liturgical thinking immediately before the Second Vatican Council, applied to the popular religious art of an earlier day, much of which the reformers soon succeeded in sweeping away. Yet they remained equally applicable after the Vatican Council, when innovators either introduced a new emotionalism and a new sentimentality into worship or watched benignly while others introduced it. There was a great eagerness to approve guitar Masses, for example, as constituting a decided improvement over the music of the past. Many Catholics ceased ever to hear the Divine Praises, the Angelus, the Regina Coeli, or the Salve Regina, but the pseudo-poetry of Rod McKuen or Kahlil Gibran was sometimes introduced into the Mass. Popular old hymns, especially Marian hymns, were effectively banned as shallow and sentimental, only to be replaced by such new standards as Allelu!, Here We Are All Together!, Sons of God, Take Our Bread We Ask You, and What a Great Thing It Is! Worshipers were invited in song to "Come away" to a place where "The land is flowing with all riches" and "Happiness and other such wishes". To get there ‘:Just take my hand and you’re half way there now", so that "Side by side we’ll walk together" and "all the way we’ll love one another". The very concept of good taste seemed to drop from the reformers’ minds, as everything was now justified in proportion as "the people want it". It was becoming clear, however, who "the people" were.

The whole process of liturgical reform was so replete with ironies that it is impossible to notice all of them. It had been professional liturgists who had insisted that Gregorian Chant was the only music truly acceptable for worship, and professionalliturgists who all but banned it from the churches. It was professional liturgists who condemned popular hymns for their superficiality and sentiment, and professional liturgists who lent their authority to the new forms of superficiality and sentiment. It was professional liturgists who had flogged ordinary churchgoers for not appreciating the rituals enough, and professionalliturgists who pronounced these same rituals outmoded.

In retrospect it is clear that, from the beginning, liturgical reform was an enterprise carried out with a rather limited ‘[clientele in mind-well-educated and relatively sophisticated persons. It was they who, in the 1940s and 1950s, appreciated Idle purity of chant, the majesty of the traditional ritual, and the subtle theories of Casel, Otto, and Eliade. As late as 1965 solemn Latin High Masses were attracting crowds of intellectuals and students in such places as Cambridge, Massachusetts, and New Haven, Connecticut. It was this same clientele who, far more than the ordinary Catholic, longed for prayer and song in common and, finally, for the vernacular. It was they who, about 1966, began to reject the organ for the guitar, solemnity for spontaneity, tradition for experimentation. At each stage of the Liturgical Movement the desires of these kinds of people were interpreted as expressing the authentic will of the Church. The masses of uneducated were always deemed deficient in taste, whether from a failure to appreciate the beauties of chant or a stubborn penchant for appreciating them too much. Yet the educated and sophisticated for whose sakes the reforms were made were soon enough dissatisfied with them also. The vernacular, congregational participation, the priest facing the people, lay lectors, Offertory processions, and guitar music were after all not enough.

In a passing remark near the beginning of the Council, H. A. Reinhold had observed that the Germans and Slavs had traditions of congregational singing which the Irish and Italians did not, and he thought this was one reason the new ways were slow in catching on.11 It was a more significant comment than he knew at the time, coming as it did nearly ten years before the advent of the "new ethnicity" in the American Church. Yet in retrospect it is also possible to see that Germans and Americans of German extraction always had a disproportionate influence in the Liturgical Movement and that the Movement had little tendency to respect the indigenous customs of the various Catholic peoples. The occasionally extravagant devotions of the Italiims particularly suffered under this rigor. Paradoxically, when advanced reformers discovered in the later 1960s that spontaneity and celebration were supposed to be the hallmarks of good liturgy, they often invoked the tradition of fiesta which is found among the Latin peoples but not much among the Germans, Irish, or English. Like the introduction of "folk" music into the liturgy, it was an attempt to impose on the people a "popular" idiom which had little to do with their own real customs. The liturgical tradition in the Western Church, among most peoples, is one of solemnity and deep reverence. In attempting to alter this to one of spontaneity and even playfulness, experimenters were necessarily doing violence to the fabric of liturgical life as it was actually lived. The symbolism of "folk liturgy" was often patently hollow: the blue-jeaned guitarist who attended the best college and drove a Jaguar, the pseudo-naive lyrics sung by an informal choir of sophisticates, the words of love in the mouths of individuals who had strong feelings of animosity toward bourgeois society, the "people’s songs" composed by professionals, the people’s songbooks which warned the "people" against reproducing the texts without paying royalties to the publishers.

As concern for the Third World developed around 1970, liturgists began to recognize that native culture had often been treated cavalierly by missionaries and there was a new interest in incorporating native elements into worship. (One liturgist even thought ritual drunkenness might be compatible with the Eucharist,12) Yet it was merely a further irony, since those priests who talked so earnestly about the beauties of popular tradition in the Third World, of the arrogance that destroyed or weakened those traditions, were often among those who had shown the least sympathy for the traditions of their own people, had applauded and abetted the destruction of so much of Catholic folk piety in America.

A state almost of warfare between liturgists and people continued into the 1970s, when a dispute erupted between the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions and the Catholic Biblical Association over a proposal by the former group to exclude Scripture readings from printed missalettes distributed to worshipers. The liturgists complained that printed texts bind celebrants to fixed readings and argued that worshipers should listen to the Scripture being read, not read it themselves from the booklets. Although a national survey purported to show that a majority of parishes wanted the texts printed, the liturgists declared that such printed booklets were outdated, although "most people don’t realize this, and an educational program must now begin so that real participation can thrive and flourish." A spokesman for the Federation added that the national poll was invalid because people tended to vote for what they were familiar with. Meanwhile a pastor reported that he had solved the problem in his parish by hiding the missalettes from the people.13 A prominent liturgist, noting that many Catholics decline to receive Communion in their hands because of their feelings about the sacredness of the act, argued that they should simply be instructed about the ignorance of their belief and informed that the Eucharist is "a bread which is broken to feed man’s larger hungers". He ridiculed a suggestion that there be separate Communion lines for those following the traditional customs and added that "The only answer is a sensitive catechesis."14

Mary Douglas, in situating the liturgical crisis within the general cultural crisis of the time, discerned

… three phases in the move away from ritualism. First, there is the contempt of external ritual forms; second, there is the private internalising of religious experience; third, there is the move to humanist philanthropy. When the third stage is underway, the symbolic life of the spirit is finished …. The reformers set low value on the external and symbolic aspects of Friday abstinence and those who exhort the faithful to prefer eleemosynary deeds are not making an intellectually free assessment of forms of worship. They are moving with the secular tide along with other sections of the middle class who seek to be justified in their lives only by saving others from hunger and injustice ….

The Friday abstainers are not free to follow their pastors in their wide-ranging philanthropy. For each person’s religion has to do with himself and his own autonomous needs. There is a sad disjunction between the recognized needs of clergy, teachers, writers, and the needs of those they preach to and write for.

The final stage of the unraveling of ritual and community is that of the present, in which men are dominated by notions of personal success, doing good, professionalism, and a generalized guilt over social injustice. Professor Douglas concludes:

"Those who are responsible for ecclesiastical decisions are only too likely to have been made, by the manner of their education, insensitive to non-verbal signals and dull to their meaning. This is central to the difficulties of Christianity today."15

The conflict between clergy and other professionals advocating "correct" forms of worship and masses of believers following their own customs is a perennial one in the Church. In Yucatan, for example, Robert Redfield found that the same villages were simultaneously the most Catholic and the most pagan. Catholic rites were regarded as the property of all the people, and there were periodic conflicts with reforming priests seeking to suppress pagan practices,16 For the most part throughout the history of the Church the conflict has been muted by a broad tolerance of popular customs. Having conquered paganism in the early Middle Ages, the Church made its peace with it and allowed pagan remnants to exist within Catholic practice; some pagan elements were even deliberately claimed by the Church for its own use.

Periodically there have been strong manifestations of puritanism, of which the Reformation was the most notable. The Liturgical Movement following the Second Vatican Council has been the most significant expression of the puritan spirit within Catholicism in modern times, although like all puritanism it has tended to have an uneasy relationship with the Church. (Thomas Merton had noted before the Council that puritanism " … having first removed valid art and then permitted the substitution of more corrupt and popular forms, has paved the way for the degradation of sacred art by sentimentality".17)

The attempt systematically to purify popular worship tends toward the destruction not only of the forms of piety but of the piety itself.

As a deeply ingrained and traditional piety is rooted out, the void will be filled not by a more authentic Christianity but by available resources provided by popular culture.

In particular the attack on popular devotions in the name of the Sacrifice of the Mass has led to a weakened regard for the latter as well.

In the words of Mary Douglas:

Perhaps it is true that Friday abstinence became a wall behind which the Catholics … retired too smugly. But it was the only ritual which brought Christian symbols down into the kitchen and larder and on to the dinner table in the manner of Jewish rules of impurity. To take away one symbol that meant something is no guarantee that- the spirit of charity will flow in its place. It might have been safer to build upon that small symbolic wall in the hope that eventually it could come to surround Mount Sion.18

One of the more significant ironies of the period of reform was the fact that the priesthood was being demythologized at the same time the liturgy was in a state of flux, the two in obvious close relationship to each other. Yet the demythologizing of the priesthood was precisely the factor which enabled many of the laity to resist liturgical changes. At first they followed, somewhat unenthusiastically, reforms which they were told represented the recovery of a more authentic and ancient Catholic tradition. This was in fact true of most of the officially mandated changes. However, as liturgical experimentation proceeded, many laymen came to sense that they had a surer grasp on the meaning of the Church’s traditions than did some of the specialists and that the demands of modern secular culture, not the ancient traditions of the Church, were guiding much of the new liturgical activity. They were at this point able psychologically to oppose further experiments, sometimes to denounce priests to those in higher authority (who were often in turn reluctant to act on these lay complaints), and even in extreme cases to go into schism. They sensed that, as liturgists sometimes asserted, liturgy belongs to the whole Church and the whole people have responsibility for it. They extended the principle, however, to include the idea that professional liturgists have no special authority if they depart from the authentic spirit of the Church. The laity began to assert their rights in ways progressive clergy had not anticipated.

Catholic folk religion over the centuries has had striking resemblances to the folk religion found in many otherwise diverse cultures. There is an evident disjunction between "transcendental" and "pragmatic" religion, the latter of which leans heavily on fixed rites and concerns itself to a great extent with concrete goals, particularly the appropriation of divine power for the sake of healing or other material benefits. This appropriation is one important way by which the dichotomy of sacred and profane is bridged. Formal education tends to inspire opposition to pragmatic religion in the name of a purer transcendental faith.19

At its worst, folk Catholicism tends toward an unabashed paganism. It follows the pattern, noticed by Eliade and others, whereby the "high god" of a people is gradually forgotten as he is elevated so far above the world as to have no influence on it, and lesser divinities are worshiped in practice. Religion then becomes more carnal and more selfish, although also more human. 20 The great pioneer psychologist of religion William James stated bluntly, "The religion of the common people has always been polytheism",21 and at certain times and places the Catholic saints have in fact functioned as minor deities in competition with God himself.22

Liturgical reformers were always keenly aware of the impurity of so much folk Catholicism, although in the urbanized Western countries there has been a much closer connection between popular cults and official piety than in peasant societies. The liturgists’ puritanical attacks on this folk piety were odd from several points of view, however. It was particularly strange that in the America of the 1960s, amid an evidently growing and militant secularism, superstition and magic should have been deemed such severe dangers to the Church. The contemporary atmosphere would seem to make a tolerance of superstitious excess permissible in the Church, since the force of the surrounding culture constantly works against such things. Instead liturgists chose to direct much of their energy into combating the semipagan excesses of folk piety, while simultaneously opening themselves more and more to the sophisticated high paganism of, for example, Bernstein’s Mass or other syncretic and eccentric uses of traditional liturgy. Their sometimes fierce opposition to folk piety was also odd given their general lack of concern about neo-magic as it came to birth among sophisticates. People who saw something pernicious in novenas were often prepared to smile tolerantly at a newly fashionable astrology.

Perhaps oddest of all was the fact that liturgical reform originally aimed at recalling Catholics from "pragmatic" to "transcendental" religion, from a piety too much given over to petitionary invocations and thanksgiving for favors and back to a pure worship of God. Yet the destruction of the patterns of folk piety was followed by a new interest on the part of liturgists themselves in "relevant" worship directly related to the needs of the human community. In folk Catholicism, however, the more blatantly self-concerned forms of religion had been satisfactorily controlled by limiting them primarily to noneucharistic devotions. Now, in the reformed liturgical economy, the Mass itself was systematically reshaped by the liturgical avant-garde to render it usable for the narrow purposes of specific groups. Its function as a great act of pure worship declined accordingly, and some people professed to find the entire notion of transcendental worship meaningless.

The attempt to make worship "pure" often masks hidden discontents with the very act of worship and may be the step prior to the discovery of its "irrelevance" even in its purified state.

Perhaps no concern has so dominated advanced liturgical thought since the Council as the determination to deny any vestige of connection between Catholic liturgy and magic. Yet the denial is not convincing unless traditional rites are either eliminated altogether or reinterpreted in ways almost unrecognizable from the standpoint of traditional belief. If the liturgy is, as classical thought insisted, a great divine mystery, then it will inevitably have magical connotations for some people; the Church can seek to control these but cannot hope to eliminate them. In seeking to eliminate them, radical liturgists have necessarily humanized the ritual to the point where it no longer has any magical connotations principally because it has so few connotations of divinity.

In any religion which esteems ritual, it has been found virtually impossible to draw a sharp and convincing distinction between religion and magic. What is a pure religious act from one point of view may be viewed magically from another. The distinction between the two is clear if polar phenomena are studied: a profound mystical experience, on the one hand, versuS a simple primitive spell, on the other. But inevitably the two sides meet at some point, and it is the area of their meeting which causes the defmitional problem. Magic and religion are probably best seen as forming a continuum.23 As Bronislaw Malinowski warned, it is also a mistake to interpret magic too simply-even primitive people have a knowledge of the "natural" world and can function effectively as "secular" men. Magical rites have limited purposes and are not as irrational as may first appear.24

Several important principles derive from this:

Historically Catholicism has accommodated itself more to the magical, primitively pagan tendencies of human culture than to puritanism, sensing that puritanism is often a prelude to secularization.

The scientific mentality is not in necessary opposition to a belief in ritual efficacy, since even primitive people are capable of distinguishing what is purely "natural" from what is effected by ritual action.

The attempt to eliminate all element of "magic" from liturgy tends to lead to its secularization.

In various parts of the world it has been discovered that the practice of illegitimate magic, especially witchcraft, increases as traditional religion declines. Magic tends to flourish as a result of rapid and disintegrating social change and may be more common at the "advanced" and urbanized end of the social spectrum than at the rural end.25 This sociological principle received abundant confirmation in the years during which the liturgy of the Catholic Church appeared in such disarray. Nothing surprised reformers more than "secular man’s" sudden turn to astrology, satanism, witchcraft, and other varieties of supposedly outmoded superstition. One explanation popular in progressive circles was that the Church itself, by its emphasis on ritual and "externals", had stimulated a perverse interest in magic.26 What such an explanation missed was the formidable persistence of magical attitudes throughout the world’s history, in all cultures and all ages. The anxieties and hopes which give rise to magical belief appear to be indigenous to human nature and, although they can be muted and suppressed for a time, reassert themselves periodically.

The benign ritual of the Catholic Church is perhaps the most effective antidote to magic to have evolved in Western culture because, instead of denying the reality of magic and the anxieties which give rise to it, this ritual counters them in their own terms.

The weakening of traditional sacred symbols and traditional systems of meaning tends to stimulate belief in magic, as anxious individuals search for new protection against the suddenly revealed chaos of the universe.

Besides its magical accretions, what liturgical reformers found most objectionable in folk piety was its apparent meaninglessness, especially the people’s mode of participation in the Mass itself — passive, silent, uncomprehending, uninvolved. The major thrust ofliturgical change was that of bringing the Mass to the people, allowing them to participate in an enlightened and educated way.

Although there were powerful arguments in favor of these reforms, liturgists tended to overlook one significant fact: the passive worshiper in the pew seemed to have a profound sense of the Mass’ importance, attended Mass with a sense of reverence, and sometimes went to great length to do so (for example, those individuals who, although they may have prayed their rosaries instead of their missals, walked through snow at 6 A.M. to attend Mass before going to work).

All things being equal it is obvious that educated participation in a comprehensible rite is preferable to a piety which is hazy even if devout. However, efforts to make the Mass "meaningful" were not self-evidently successful, judging by the decline of church attendance and the swelling complaints of its irrelevance, which followed rather than preceded the reforms. Many individuals who had joined in the Latin Mass without serious complaint stopped attending after the reforms were complete, or found "meaningful" liturgy only in experimental small groups. While the gains from liturgical reform probably outweigh the losses, the balance is perhaps more nearly equal than liturgists are prepared to recognize.

One of the liturgists’ major errors was what might be called the "fallacy of explicitness". It was the assumption that a symbol or an experience cannot be meaningful unless its meaning can be articulated verbally and coherently. Given this assumption, uneducated Catholics were virtually doomed to being regarded as inferior, since most of them lacked the ability to articulate their feelings adequately and could not be expected to master a complex symbolology.

Emile Durkheim proposed that the true significance of religious rites lies not in the specific goals they purportedly aim at but in their general spiritual effect on the participants, which is often inexpressible.27 Members of primitive tribes are found to entertain the most diverse and even contradictory notions of the meaning of their various rituals, with only a few select individuals fully in command of the lore behind them.28 The anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn has described the uncertain relationship which exists between "myth" and "ritual", the former the official account adopted by a people to explain the latter. Sometimes they exist independent of one another; sometimes rituals are practiced which have no myths to explain them.29 In the history of the Catholic Church the majority of membership has existed at a very low level of education, so that a sophisticated understanding of ritual could not reasonably be expected. (The maligned traditional catechisms were an attempt to provide as much of this as possible.) For probably most Catholics, even at the present time, the meaning of the sacred rites has existed at a level beneath that of explicit verbal formulation.

The Second Vatican Council, so dominated by the prelates and theologians of the northwestern part of the globe, perceived that the Church was at an important historic watershed in part because in the most "progressive" countries mass education had reached the point where some other form ofliturgical participation might be possible. The momentous decisions to translate the liturgy into the vernacular, encourage informed lay participation, and simplify the ritual were recognitions of this new situation.

In a culture where people are capable of being instructed and expect some rationale for everything they do, it would be obscurantist to try to preserve a pseudo-peasant culture of implicit meanings. But one of the great errors of liturgical reform was that the new ways were so often justified through denigrating the old. This in turn engendered a good deal of bitterness, resistance, and suspicion. It demoralized people who were made to feel that all their lives they had not been praying properly, that there was something profoundly flawed about their faith. It placed a premium on change and discontinuity, whereas liturgical reform would have been most effective if reformers had built on existing traditions as much as possible.

Most serious, however, was the previously mentioned fallacy of explicitness. With the commendable goal of elevating worshipers’ conscious awareness of the meaning of the ritual, many liturgists all but denied that the rites could have implicit meanings not exhaustible by verbal formulas. To a great extent they forgot how liturgy has functioned in the historical Church. They were eager to pronounce "meaningless" rites which countless millions had for centuries joined in with great reverence, which had formed and sustained many great saints, which had seemed so important to Catholics that they had risked their lives to celebrate them in time of persecution, to bring them onto the battlefield, even under the most difficult of circumstances to perform them in prison camps. Here was found, at a minimum, the powerful "condensed symbol" described by Mary Douglas: a timeless act which summed up the whole moral and spiritual existence of the participant, which joined God and man in profound unity. At a minimum the old Mass created an atmosphere where prayer was encouraged, even if it was private prayer.

On one level traditional ritual gave to worshipers a strong sense of belonging, whose meaning was in essence "I participate; therefore I am." Specific meanings were subordinated to the sense of general membership in a mystical community.30 Through that sense of belonging, deeper and more enduring than the more conscious experiences of community fostered in the new liturgy, a whole range of values and a whole way of life were intuited. Hence a visible change in this ritual provoked fears Uustified, as it turned out) that these values and this way of life were in danger of being undermined. The experience of participation was largely ineffable; the emotions it engendered were of the kind which commonly enforced silence, not the demonstrative celebration urged by reformers. The Mass’ meaning did not depend on any specific function it had, whether understood in deeply theological or shallowly magical terms. Profoundly at home in the ritual, implicitly believing in its importance, worshipers might prefer a muted, silent celebration of quiet affirmation. Anthropologists have noted that a strong sense of the sacredness of ritual often manifests itself in apparently routine behavior, an attitude of prudent participationbut no visible deep emotion.31

As Clifford Geertz has summarized it, the function of sacred symbol is to synthesize a people’s ethos-the tone, character, and quality of their life, their moral and aesthetic style, mood, and world view, their most comprehensive idea of order. The ethos is shown to be eminently suitable to the actual state of reality.32 Liturgical innovators contended that for Catholics the traditional symbols had ceased to perform these functions adequately, that there existed a deep split between the symbols and the actual conditions of modern life. Yet this was a split felt and perceived only by a relatively small segment of the Church, among them many whom Mary Douglas has described as being unattuned to symbolism in any form. If the radical critique of traditional liturgy was in part that this liturgy was no longer effective, in part it was also that this liturgy was too effective. It sustained a culture which the innovator wished to get beyond.

It spoke of values he wished to discard. It was too God-centered, too sacred, too much oriented toward eternity. The widespread recognition of the irrelevance of the symbols did not occur until after they had been changed. The community whose symbols they were began to disintegrate only because the manipulation of the symbols itself promoted that disintegration. Especially deadly was the confusion sown, often deliberately, by the anointed guardians of the symbols-the priests who confessed their lack of belief in them or manipulated them for purposes alien to the traditions of the community. Of all the odd notions which accompanied the process of liturgical change, none was odder than the belief that a complex, dense, and ancient society which had built itself up laboriously through centuries of history could be destroyed and then rebuilt, according to plan, by experts.

Among unsophisticated people, however, Catholic folk religion has probably only rarely been mere "cultural Catholicism" in the sense of a system valued chiefly for its worldly benefits, its sense of belonging, with no real belief in God beyond it. Such a disjuncture of belief and action usually requires an element of sophistication which few "folk Catholics" possess. In however imperfect a way, the rites of folk Catholicism have kept alive a strong sense of divine reality. Studying the folk Catholicism of Spain, the anthropologist William A. Christian has noted that the dichotomy of sacred and profane is quite fundamental and that for some people it leads to a joyful and even poetic faith. A strong relationship with God can substitute for missing human relationships and helps the individual form his or her own identity, through interior dialogue with God. Newer forms of piety, propagated by young priests fresh from the seminaries, tend to obscure the sense that there exists "a world beyond the world". As Professor Christian has said, "By their hard-nosed rationalism the young priests live in a world where there is little or no participation of God in day-to-day affairs." He fears that the older religious culture will be effectively undermined before an equally powerful reformed piety can be forged.33

Although liturgical reform has brought about a theoretical improvement in the quality of Catholic piety, it is not at all clear that it has resulted in a stronger sense of God’s presence in the Church, and there is a good deal of evidence to the contrary.

In the actual life of the Church, most sacred symbols are not understood by most believers in an explicit, intellectual way, but are nonetheless apprehended as having meaning.

The total effect of these symbols is to sustain a strong belief in God, even though specific symbols may not always convey specific religious meanings.

Despite their ignorance of the explicit meaning of particular symbols, uneducated Catholics tend to have a stronger loyalty to these symbols and to the traditions behind them than do the educated.

At certain periods of history the passive resistance of the uneducated to the process of symbolic manipulation is the major force tending toward the preservation of historical continuity in the Church.

Since public worship is the property of the total community of believers, liturgical specialists can claim only an advisory role in this area and should under certain circumstances give way to the authority of common practice.

Since the Catholic Church has throughout most of its history been composed largely of uneducated persons, the unity of the Church has been primarily in its worship rather than its belief. Folk Catholics have often been guilty of material heresy, as reformers charge, because the lack of adequate doctrinal grounding cannot help but lead to mistaken beliefs. But the material heresy of the uneducated has always been treated quite leniently, as being unintentional and unavoidable, while strong emphasis has been placed on conformity in ritual and worship, or at least on conformity in official liturgy with room for diversity in nonliturgical piety.

The primary unity of the Church is in its worship, in which a certain diversity of belief is possible so long as the liturgical unity is respected.

Unity in worship and diversity in belief can be maintained, however, only so long as doctrinal diversity does not become conscious opposition to the official teachings of the Church.

(That this is now coming to be the case is evidenced, for example, by the reluctance of some congregations to recite the Creed even when prescribed, or by changes in the prayers of the Mass evidently designed to imply heterodox beliefs.)

For over a century the Church of England and the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States tolerated far greater diversity of both belief and liturgy within their borders than did the Roman Catholic Church. The unity of these churches was maintained primarily through the acceptance by all parties of a common Prayer Book. In one sense the history of these two churches is evidence that there can be wide diversity within unity. In another sense, however, the diversity has been so great as to call into question how unified these churches really are. Extreme groups, both "high" and "low", have sometimes sought to read each other out of the Church. Anglo-Catholics may refuse to attend services in an Evangelical parish and vice versa. In America the very use of the term "Protestant" in the Church’s official name has been periodically challenged as inappropriate by some groups, and just as vigorously defended by others. The unity of Anglicanism has sometimes seemed to be primarily an acceptance of the Church as a convenient and traditional administrative arrangement. Anglo-Catholics have commonly felt far closer to Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox than to Evangelical or "broad-church" Anglicans, and the latter two have often felt far greater affinity for various Protestant groups.

The same situation has begun to develop within Roman Catholicism, so that it is difficult to say that those who attend the Latin High Mass at Brompton Oratory in London, for example, belong to the same church as those gathered for the Eucharist in a student apartment in San Francisco. Their unity appears to be merely nominal, and quite often their attitudes toward each other do not seem to approach even respectful tolerance, much less anything greater.

Radical liturgical diversity in a church tends toward the decrease of both charity and unity.

The decline of the sacred within Catholicism has sometimes been attributed to the process of social change itself, which lies beyond the Church’s own borders and largely beyond the control of its people. Mircea Eliade has theorized, for example, that urban man’s religious sensibilities are weak and that in the modern milieu religion tends to become a largely private and greatly diluted phenomenon.34 A. R. Radcliffe-Brown developed the thesis that religious cults and social structures decay together,35 which has obvious applicability in an age when almost every institution in America, from the federal government to the family, appears to be in severe trouble. Social change has unquestionably affected the condition of popular religion. Traditional devotions, for example, fell into disuse not only because of liturgical reform but also because increasing crime and deteriorating public transportation made many people reluctant to attend church at night.

However, urban life is not of necessity the enemy of traditional religion. Robert Redfield found that in a city of Yucatan the purest kind of Catholicism was to be found, as well as the conscious preservation of rural pagan cults, both existing in the midst of a good deal of skepticism and indifference.36 Mary Douglas, while noting that modern childraising practices tend to create attitudes inimical to ritual, that education tends also to foster a certain religious skepticism, and that social change causes a decline of belief in ritual, also observes that secularism is not a distinctively modern phenomenon and is not confined to "advanced" societies. (Pygmies in Africa evince a "secular" or "skeptical" outlook, for example.)37

Perhaps the most impressive examples of the compatibility of sacred religion with both urban life and social change are to be found within American Catholicism itself, among the generations of immigrants from many countries who moved from the peasant villages of the Old World to the industrial cities of the New World and found that in the process their religion was strengthened. No sense of dislocation experienced by their modern descendants is likely to be as great. (Mary Douglas makes a similar point about the Irish in London.) Paradoxically, it has not been the urban milieu which caused the weakening of American Catholicism. The enthusiasm of so many Catholics for Harvey Cox’ original thesis about the essential secularity of the modern city is incomprehensible, since Catholics, of all people, should have been aware of quite strong religious traditions in the great cities of the United States. (Besides the urban Catholic parishes, the innumerable Afro-American storefront churches are obvious.)

The sudden weakening of American Catholicism in fact coincided with a massive Catholic abandonment of the city for the simulated small-town atmosphere of the suburbs. This process began immediately after World War II but reached its peak in the 1960s. So long as Catholics were city people their religious traditions were strong. The relationship of de sacralization and suburbanization is complex. but in part both phenomena represent the desire on the part of Catholics to enter the mainstream of American life. to shed whatever identites are limiting and special. Within Anglicanism it is perhaps not accidental that the strongest ritualist parishes have more often been found in large cities than in small towns or rural communities.

The very conditions of urban life may tend to make city dwellers sensitive to tradition, religious ritual, and group religious identity.

That higher education tends to promote a certain skepticism about the sacred and about tradition is obvious. but the necessity of this is less certain. In its earlier stages the Liturgical Movement attracted most of its following from among educated people. who had been trained to appreciate the subtleties of a liturgy whose resources were not at all obvious. If a consciously modern liturgy is now largely the concern of the educated. it is also true that the restoration or purification of old liturgy has also been the concern of the educated. (Uneducated people tend to be conservatives but not reactionaries-they accept whatever is familiar to them.) The highly educated are if anything even more subject to fashion than the simple. and nothing is more likely than that before too many years there will be a revival of interest in traditional solemn liturgy among the educated. by which time many of the ordinary people in the parishes will have become used to the new ways and will regard the revival of the old with suspicion and incomprehension. (This happened in Anglicanism. where the common people were extremely slow to abandon their rituals in the sixteenth century but looked askance at the ritualist revival in the nineteenth. )

Folk religion. although it exists in many religions of the world. has not been a recognized part of most Protestant groups. including the Episcopal Church. One of the important distinguishing features of Protestantism has in fact been its refusal to sanction folk religion; this was one of the major issues of the Reformation. Thus the charge that contemporary Roman Catholicism is in danger of being protestantized is given added weight by the hostility of many reformers to the religious customs of their own people. Protestantism has no folk piety in that for the most part it does not sanction religious rites which are apart from the official worship and which express sensibilities different from what is expressed in t

James F. Hitchcock

James F. Hitchcock, emeritus professor of history at St. Louis University, which he attended as an undergraduate, received his masters and doctorate degrees from Princeton University. An archive of various articles of his can be read here. Dr. Hitchcock has authored several books, including The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life; The Recovery of the Sacred; What Is Secular Humanism; Catholicism and Modernity: Confrontation or Capitulation?; and History of the Catholic Church: From the Apostolic Age to the Third Millennium