Thursday, September 03, 2009

Ritual Apologies

The Rule of Benedict forms the backbone of Western monasticism. It has its roots in the coenobitic tradition that began in Egypt in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, and draws upon such diverse sources as St Basil, St Augustine, John Cassian, and the anonymous Rule of the Master. While it is certainly worth reading on its own, one learns a great deal more from reading it with a commentary, and I can highly recommend the commentary of Fr. Terrence Kardong, OSB (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1996).

Recently I came across a passage in Kardong's commentary in which he discusses the numerous times St Benedict calls for some sort of "correction" or "punishment" for "faults" committed during the liturgy (in this case "liturgy" refers to the opus Dei ["work of God"] or the Divine Office). The language used in Rule 45 moves gradually from mere mistake (fallor) through bad mistake (delinquo) to bad intention (culpa). Often these "faults" are merely mistakes in the chanting of the words of the liturgy or some other failure to follow the rubrics carefully. But in commenting on the progression from fallor to culpa Kardong says
...the author moves from description of the error to refusal to acknowledge the error. That recalcitrance is the real "fault" involved. And indeed such contumacy is the only real fault that Benedict ever punishes. But the effect here is to make it sound as if all such errors were rooted in bad will, which is manifestly not the case. Indeed, the whole question of liturgical faults and their correction is somewhat vexing. On the one hand, no one wants a slovenly and undisciplined liturgy. Yet the question remains as to how to achieve that goal without introducing disciplinary measures alien to the very spirit of the liturgy itself. In response to Vatican II, which calls for a much more humane approach to liturgy, most Benedictine communities have distanced themselves from the rather draconian measures suggested by Rule 45. And this has been done without any noticeable sign of deterioration, at least in the Divine Office.
This is a topic near and dear to my own heart, because like many converts to Catholicism (especially converts to Catholicism from Anglicanism) I am deeply wedded to the view that it is precisely the formal beauty and spiritual reverence of a carefully executed liturgy that connects the participant to the underlying realities of which the liturgical movements are signs. Some of these signs are particularly important ones, because they are Sacramental signs. There was much uproar in the 1980s over various liturgical experiments in which substances other than bread and wine were used as Sacred Elements for consecration, and in the end the Vatican issued an instruction requiring only unleavened wheat bread and real fermented grape juice (i.e., "wine") be used for consecration. We don't see the Vatican intervening in the case of lesser signs, although very recently there have been some exceptions to this general rule. For example, the faithful who approach to receive Communion are to make a profound reverence prior to reception--the intention behind this instruction was to emphasize through a sign the unity that is Communion by eliminating the many disparate forms of personal piety that one sometimes could find within a single parish (kneeling upon exiting the pew, for example, or making a sign of the cross after reception) and imposing a kind of unity of action on those who participate. But I doubt that we will see any Vatican instructions about whether one ought to bow one╒s head at the Divine Name (as some do, but many do not), and we certainly will see no penalties imposed for those who fail to follow these instructions (the situation is different for the Sacramental signs, of course, but laymen need not worry about those sorts of penalties).

So why the fuss over the chanting of the Psalms at the Office? In antiquity, monks who made such mistakes had to lie prostrate at the feet of their confreres while the latter filed out of the oratory after the liturgy, begging their forgiveness. In modern monasteries the penalty has been greatly reduced, if that is the right word: monks typically just touch their lips with a finger, or tap the pew, when they make a mistake. I'm not entirely sure that this is really what Kardong has in mind when he writes that the penalties have become more "humane" since Vatican II, so I won't comment on that. What I find interesting in this is not so much the penal character of the Rule, but rather the symbolic function of penalties in general as they are implemented in the Rule.

I play a lot of soccer, and anyone who plays soccer at the amateurish level at which I play it will often hear players all over the field calling out "my bad", "my fault", "sorry!" and the like (along with much more colorful epithets that I will pass over in silence). These are all of them admissions of mistakes, blunders that may well cost a possession or a goal or, in certain kinds of cases, an entire game. There is no requirement that anybody say anything at all after such a mistake, and in some sorts of competitions--notably those at a higher level of competitiveness--one doesn't hear them very often, if at all. I think that this can be explained by the sort of community one is dealing with. A pick-up game played by amateurs has a very different sort of social structure to it from what one might find in a competitive game played by professionals. Amateurs at a pick-up game often are friends getting together just to have some fun or to get some exercise. They often don't keep score, and they usually don't get into fights with other players. They see one another off the field at the grocery store, the farmers' market, their kids' schools, and other places, and they are friendly to each other in these other settings even if they are not otherwise very close socially. They talk about the games, of course, but they also wind up talking about other things. They are, in short, a kind of community. Professional athletes are often friends, too, of course, and they see each other in other settings, but I suggest that the situation for them is really quite different. When David Beckham plays soccer, he is not doing it for the exercise or even because it is fun (though it might be). He is doing it because it is his job. If he messes up, or if another player messes up, there might be some recriminations of some kind later, but then there might not be. It's just a job. What usually gets more notice than the mistakes are the great plays, the goals scored, the fancy footwork. Successes are admired and played and replayed on the Sports news or on YouTube; mistakes are often just ignored (unless, of course, they are spectacular ones, like running the wrong way with the ball, or scoring an own-goal). In a professional setting, the point is to play the game well, and it is the well-played game that gets the attention and the highlight footage attention. The game is an end in itself, not a sign of some greater end.

This difference in social structure explains why one hears "my bad" more often in amateur games than in professional games. True, amateurs probably make a lot more mistakes than professionals, but I think more importantly in the amateur setting the person who has made the mistake is more prone to say something like that because he is more prone to be sensitive to how his mistake will affect the other people he is playing with. Since there is no money on the line, to say "my bad" after such a mistake clearly has no purely utilitarian motive behind it: one says it because one genuinely wants to own up to something that was not done as well as it ought to have been done. The other players probably do not care all that much about the mistake, but I can say from personal experience that the other players appreciate hearing it the admission of a mistake, because it shows that the person who said it cares about how the game is going, and he cares about that not because he fears losing his bonus pay or because he is going to lose a bet, but because he sees that it was because of something that he did that the game was made somehow less, both for him and for the other players, and he is sorry about that.

Sports metaphors can be pushed only so far, of course, but my idea is this. In a coenobitic community the emphasis is not on perfection of liturgical technique, but on communal love. One does not bemoan a poorly executed neume because one wants to strive for a perfect performance as some kind of end in itself, but because the execution of the neumes in choir is a sign of something much more important than mere melody. The monks chant the Psalms together--in unison--because they are one body. Their execution of the liturgy is a sign of their community, and if an individual does something that makes the sign less effective, it diminishes the effectiveness of that sign. It is, in a certain sense, an insult to the unity of the community to be slovenly in representing it through signs, just as it is poor manners to slur your words and talk indistinctly when you answer a question someone has asked you in earnest. Since communal love is the highest Christian virtue, we are talking about something far more important here than mere bad manners. If you find it obnoxious that some artist somewhere has decided to immerse a Crucifix in a jar or urine and call it a work of art, or to portray the Virgin Mary using elephant dung as a medium, then you should see the importance of avoiding liturgical errors.

Just as I don't expect an amateur soccer player to run off the field in tears when he makes a mistake, neither do I think it essential that monks--or anyone else, really--prostrate themselves and beg forgiveness after liturgical mistakes. I guess I agree with Kardong that the finger to the lips or the tap on the pew will do, just as "my bad" will do in the soccer game. But that something ought to be done, if not to make the error go away, at least to admit that one is part of a community and that one has in some way diminished that community, whether intentionally or not, I think is an important point. Indeed, I think it may be one of the many gifts of monasticism to the rest of us that there is such a sense of communal obligation over such things. I don't mean to suggest that we introduce a whole new set of rubrics for things we ought to do when we screw up at Mass. I will be content if people are just a little more careful about things than many appear to be these days. And I certainly would have no objection if Andres Serrano were to lie prostrate and beg everyone╒s forgiveness for "Piss Christ".

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Talking Past Each Other

There used to be something of a schism in the domain that is professional philosophy. During the 1960s and 1970s you could find some philosophers who would categorize themselves as "analytic", others who would categorize themselves as "Continental". This dichotomy was predominantly maintained by philosophers working in American colleges and universities, and it had to do, primarily, with macho posturing. Analytic philosophers, for the most part, agreed with Richard Rorty that philosophy had taken a "linguistic turn" sometime in the 1940s or 1950s, and that good philosophy consisted of the careful analysis of concepts and arguments. Continental philosophers, by contrast, used to be portrayed as being less interested in logical rigor (at least of the sort favored by self-styled "analytic" philosophers) and more interested in metaphysics and politics.

This false dichotomy was effectively emasculated by Michael Dummett in his 1996 book The Origins of Analytic Philosophy, in which he shows how the sort of philosophy practiced by both of these groups is descended from a common ancestor. Just as chimps and humans differ only very slightly in their genetic makeup, so, too, analytic and Continental philosophers have more in common then some of them may like to admit. (Some of them don't mind admitting it, just so long as we are straight about which ones are the chimps.) It turns out that most of the differences in this genetic makeup find expression in modes of discourse or, to put it in layman's terms, jargon. Analytic philosophers like to talk about inferences, abductions, modus ponens, punctuated equilibria, epistemological standpoints, defeasible theories, and supervenience. Continental types like to talk about subjectivity, The Other, bracketing of horizons, and manifolds of experience. To the outsider, all of it is gobbledygook, but for those of us who are members of the club, you can tell who the chimps are by their vocalizations.

I was reminded of this false dichotomy this evening after reading through a post by an old mentor of mine, Fr. Robert Connor, who blogs at The Truth Will Make You Free. In a series of posts there, Fr. Connor takes George Weigel to task for "misunderstanding" Benedict XVI's "hermeneutic of continuity". The posts are many and long--I particularly recommend this one, this one, and this one. It seems as though the principal target of Fr. Connor's critique is Weigel's complaint against some aspects of Caritas in Veritate. Other Catholic bloggers have already taken Weigel to task for his apparently schizoid reading of that encyclical, and I won't add to the confusion by taking him on myself. Upon reading Weigel's critique, I did get the impression that he was rather selective with his material, but one thing that he clearly did not get wrong, in my view, is the import of Benedict XVI's famous slogan, the "hermeneutic of continuity". The expression is drawn from the Pope's address to the Roman curia of 22 December 2005, and it refers to the fact that the Second Vatican Council stands in a relationship of doctrinal continuity with the totality of Magisterial teachings of the Church leading up to Vatican II. Although this fact should come as a surprise to nobody, there certainly have been pundits who wished to assert that "Vatican II changed everything", and by "change" they mean that the Council reversed, or else substantively modified, traditional teachings. This view Benedict rejected as the "hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture", that is, these pundits think that many of the Church's traditional teachings--the ones the pundits dislike the most, of course--are not only open to revision, but have, in fact, been revised.

This sort of a view is incoherent, and Benedict was right to contrast it with the proper view of the Church's Magisterium as continuous and unbroken. Weigel has put it this way:
Throughout his pontificate, and in Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI has been at pains to stress the continuity of Catholic life and thought before and after the Second Vatican Council: what he terms a “hermeneutics of continuity,” as distinguished from a “hermeneutics of rupture.” Or, in lay language, the claim that the Catholic Church reinvented itself at Vatican II is simply wrong.
Yet this statement, and others like it, from Weigel is what my old friend Fr. Connor objects to. He says:
It’s difficult not to contradict Weigel with Karol Wojtyla’s profound assessment of Vatican II as crossing the threshold from noetic object to subject. Nothing could be more profound and telling in that it is a reorienting of the entire doctrine of the Church from propositional truth to personal “attitude” of self-gift in the ontological horizon of subjectivity.
I don't know how difficult it is not to contradict Weigel, but I do know how hard it is to make sense of Fr. Connor's objection to Weigel, since I've been trying to do just that for some time now and I can't do it. As I read through Fr. Connor's various posts on this topic, it seems to me that he actually agrees with Weigel that the Church's teachings are consistent from the beginning right through Vatican II; his main point of departure is not on the logical point (which was also Benedict's), but on a more esoteric point that seems to come, not from anything Benedict had to say, but from a decidedly anti-analytic philosophical stance. In short, Weigel and his ilk are the chimps. But are they wrong? Well, about some things they are, but not about the hermeneutic of continuity.

Fr. Connor is surely right to note, as he does in many of his posts, that there is an emphasis in the Magisterium on self-transcendence and the struggle for holiness. Is this new since the Council? Of course not, and Fr. Connor certainly does not say that it is new--indeed, he argues, correctly, that this was one of the central teachings of the Council but that it informs rather than changes what went before (he quotes extensively from Pope John Paul the Great on this point). What Fr. Connor thinks is "new" (though not "really" new) is the emphasis on what he calls the "subjective perspective" that the Church took on at the Council. "Subjective perspective" here is Continentalese for what Fr. Connor sees as a move away from certain kinds of theological questions ("What does this teaching mean?") to certain other kinds ("What sort of a life ought I to be living if I am a member in good standing of Christ's Body the Church?"). All theology, of course, is metaphor, so whether this is new or not is irrelevant to the question of whether the substance of the Magisterium has changed. Certainly perspectives on the Magisterium change all the time--that is, indeed, precisely what gives rise to the continuity of rupture that Pope Benedict so rightly laments. But changes in perspective are not changes in substance, and on this point Fr. Connor and George Weigel are in agreement. The only real change has been in the discourse: that common descendant of analytic and Continental philosophy that Michael Dummett talked about was having its heyday in the mid-nineteenth century, just prior to Vatican I. From the time of Frege and Nietzsche we begin to see the real rift between the analytic and Continental styles of philosophy, with Frege standing at the head of the analytic tradition (it would be a little unfair to put Nietzsche at the head of the Continental tradition, but if anyone tried to do it I would not say him nay). So what was really "new" at Vatican II was a shift away from the old-fashioned Thomistic style of philosophical discourse that had dominated theological pronouncements since before Trent and towards a new style of philosophical discourse that was highly favored by the most important (so-far) of the post-conciliar Popes, John Paul the Great. Whether the Thomists and the Balthasarians are really saying anything different is a question that I will leave to my readers.