Friday, June 09, 2006

Life in the Ivory Tower

Many a blogger has inwardly groaned upon reading such as the following:
Many a liturgical theologian has inwardly groaned on Holy Thursday upon hearing the assembly sing "At That First Eucharist..." or upon hearing the homilist proclaim that we are "doing what the Lord did at the Last Supper."
These are the words of Robert J. Daly, S.J., writing in the quasi-scholarly Jesuit journal Theological Studies, published four times a year from Marquette University. The reason why I, at least, groan upon reading such things is not so much because they are manifestly pompous but rather because I can see no point to starting off an article "reviewing 20th-century research into the origins of the Eucharist" with the subjective complaint of a man who really needs to get a clue about what it means to go to Church during Holy Week.

There, now that I've been laughably pompous myself I can back off a little and try to explain why this article was so irritating to me. The article itself is actually quite good: it explores in some detail the chronological development of the Church's understanding of the theology of the Eucharist, and much of it is very informative. What I found irritating was not the scholarship itself, but the self-consciously deconstructive attitude towards popular piety. So what if Jesus did not do exactly the same things that the priest and congregation now do at a Mass? The point of calling Holy Thursday the First Eucharist is not to make a historical claim about the origins of our practices in the Eucharist, rather the way creationists want to make a historical claim about the literal meaning of the first chapters of Genesis; the point is rather that we recognize in the story of the Lord's Supper the beginnings of what has come to be, in Daly's own words, "the high point of both the expression of and the inchoative realization of the Church's marital covenant relationship with God." In making his little dig at how simplistic and naive popular piety is, Daly falls into the same fundamentalist trap himself, taking way too literally the things that are often said and done in popular contexts, as though we must assume that everyone in the Church on Holy Thursday is some kind of uneducated simpleton.

This is what comes of having too much time on your hands or, to say the same thing in a different way, of being an academic. And academic Jesuits seem to have a little more time on their hands than most. I've been perusing Theological Studies with some care lately as part of my own time wasting--er, I mean, research, and I find myself wondering, sometimes, what's up with some of these people. Here are a few items that have managed to catch my eye:
"The Indissolubility of Marriage: Reasons to Reconsider," by Kenneth Himes, O.F.M., and James A. Coriden, who argue that the Church's constant teaching on the indissolubility of marriage is not, after all, irreformable, in spite of having been unanimously believed and taught by the Magisterium for nearly 2000 years.

"Homosexuality and the Counsel of the Cross," by Paul G. Crowley, S.J., who complains that "papal" advice to homosexuals to join their sufferings to those of Christ on the Cross betrays a simplistic and inadequate understanding of the complexities of homosexuality.

"The Magisterium's Arguments Against 'Same-Sex Marriage': An Ethical Analysis and Critique," by Stephen J. Pope [!], which claims that the traditional, natural law approach to the rejection of homosexuality makes the mistake of "casting gay people in a negative light."

"Cohabitation: Past and Present Reality: A Response to Lisa Sowle Cahill," by Michael G. Lawler, who argues that "the Catholic Church needs to pay attention to [recent social scientific research] data so as to develop a more discriminating pastoral approach to the phenomenon of cohabitation."

"Feminism and the Vatican," by Edward Collins Vacek, S.J., who avers as to how he thinks the Vatican has a simplitic understanding of contemporary feminism that makes its pronouncements on social matters embarrassing to the more enlightened Jesuits of the West.
These articles are all from 2004-2005, and of course there are many other articles appearing during that time that are not only scholarly but sound, interesting, and well worth reading. But as I browsed through the journal I couldn't help but groan inwardly at the manifestation of intellectual pride that boosts itself up by tearing down what has already been established by cleverer, more thoughtful people. I suppose I'm in that same camp myself, as most of these writers are probably cleverer and more thoughtful than I am about most things, but in matters of faith I'm not altogether sure that being cleverer and more (academically) thoughtful is going to be enough to get the job of turning towards God done. How important is it, in the final analysis, to roll your eyes heavenward in condescension when a homilist talks about "doing what the Lord did"? Do I need to have, in the back of my mind, all of the conclusions of all of these scholarly articles in order to have a lively and saving faith when I am present at the Eucharist? When I am working at a soup kitchen, or at Habitat, does it matter if I remember which Council defined which of my beliefs, or if I fully understand the social and political background that probably influenced the development of those definitions?

It seems unlikely, somehow, as interesting and important as such knowledge is, that it would be necessary for everyone to have it. It's enough that the scholars have it--they can discuss these things at their leisure, since that's what they get paid to do. But I'm still a little irritated, in my own intellectually proud way, that the principal Jesuit journal in America is playing this game. I've been reading Antonia Fraser's The Gunpowder Plot: Terror and Faith in 1605, and I see a very different sort of person serving in the Jesuits in Elizabethan England. These are men who died for the faith--the traditional faith--in particular they died for the faith of the earlier generations of English Catholics for whom orthodoxy was as much a matter of praxis as of doctrine. When you have to assemble secretly for Mass at 2:00 in the morning in the basement of a country house for fear of being arrested, tortured, and killed, there's little time to worry about whether what you are doing is really literally "what our Lord did".

One hopes that it is close enough.

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