The Hermeneutic of Obstruction: Roots In Fear

The usual suspects are fisking the NCR liturgy editorial which takes aim at the hermeneutic of obstruction. I think Fr Fox and others have missed the editorial’s point. NCR is concerned with a bigger picture, not just the conciliar theology of the 16th or 20th centuries.

By the time the Council of Trent was convened, the Catholic Church had pretty much written off the Reformation. Only twenty-eight years (pretty much the pontificate of JPII), and Lutherans, Calvinists, and Anglicans were consigned to the far Tiber shore. If not hell. If the struggle for souls was waged on a philosophical battlefield, Rome withdrew from much of Europe. They left the battle to the physical world: purges, politics, pogroms, and wars across the face of Europe for the next several decades.

The liturgical products of Trent are undeniable: a uniformity of worship Christendom had never known, a cohesive and comprehensive training for seminarians, and the potential for a sense of identity in the lands that remained Catholic. In the US, this was realized with a highly successful Catholic culture.

By the time Christians arrived in North America, the wars and inquisitions were left behind. The various settling groups escaped oppression for their religious views. Where else would Puritans, Quakers, and others find common ground with Catholics?

The Second Vatican Council, in contrast, wasn’t ready to give up on non-Catholics. That must be the most significant departure from Trent. And it was defined not through theology, but from the view of evangelization and a quest for holiness. The Church’s theology wasn’t altered, but its pastoral and philosophical approach to the world outside itself was.

At its worst, Trent was philosophically ready to consign non-Catholics to hell, and not blink an eye in doing so. This caricature remains with us. Maybe it’s not totally fair. In my own theological studies, Trent was presented as a council of reform that did its best with the tools it had at the time. Catholic theologians might well say Trent was perfect. But the implementation of the Council, of which Catholic conservatives are always prepared to remind us, was far from perfect.

At its best, Vatican II showed a Church ready to embrace a certain optimism: never change for the sake of change, but reform for the sake of a more complete and aggressive approach in the world. And as with Trent, the implementation of this Council gets a mixed grade.

In the same issue, John Allen interviews Archbishop Piero Marini and the pope’s former liturgist muses:

I see a certain nostalgia for the past. What concerns me in particular is that this nostalgia seems especially strong among some young priests. How is it possible to be nostalgic for an era they didn’t experience?

To a degree, I disagree on the nostalgia diagnosis. I think many Catholics see themselves beset upon, perhaps like the churchmen of the 16th century. The very notion of reform might imply that what we were doing before was defective. It might also open up doubt as to what we might change. Maybe we’ll be wrong again. It’s much safer to go with the well-trod path.
Fear of making a mistake: this is one factor contributing to the hermeneutic of obstruction. The modern recovery of rubricism: this seems to me to be rooted in a futile quest for perfection. As a perfectionist myself, I can say that this aspiration is immature. We cannot escape failure. It dogs us human beings at the most inopportune moments, as well as most of the time in between. Mother Teresa reminds us that a proper aspiration is to being faithful. As important as rubrics may be, they cannot save the liturgy. It seems easy to say, “say the black, do the red,” but in practice, liturgy is much more complex than that.

Liturgy presents the Church in miniature. We have people who want to sail for deeper waters and cast the nets far. And we have people who don’t want to make a mistake: we might sink the ship, we might not find fishing waters, we might get lost. I think we’ve seen this in the past two decades worth of hand-wringing over the 1962 form. The giving up on form III not more than ten years after it was established to address venial sins. The near-total withdrawal from composing Roman Rite prayers in vernacular languages. It all speaks of a theology that may well be uncontested, but it paints the extremes of traditionalism as fearful, timid, and lacking in faith.

I readily concede these generalizations don’t always fit every circumstance. Reformers were certainly tainted by fear in attempting to fast-forward liturgical change before the curia got their paws on the effort. And the rightful aspiration to beauty and reverence is not colored by a fear of the future.

I think the attempt to read too much into media editorials is likewise colored by over-generalizing the content and intent.

From this Catholic’s view, Trent gave Catholicism many thing it needed. But it’s time, well past time, to junk its worldview. Vatican II gave Catholics what they needed forty years ago, and as was true in the 1570’s and beyond, the implementation was imperfect.

The real locus for reform and renewal is in the local communities: the family and the parish most especially. But on those levels, the articulation of theology often fades to irrelevancy or incomprehension. And for the simple tasks of growing in faith and holiness, fear is useless. What is needed is trust. These simple, but far-from-easy tasks, are the real big picture aspects we Catholics could be working on.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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29 Responses to The Hermeneutic of Obstruction: Roots In Fear

  1. FrMichael says:

    Haven’t read NCR nor Fr. Fox– no time right now. But your second paragraph shows gross historical ignorance of the Counter-Reformation: “If the struggle for souls was waged on a philosophical battlefield, Rome withdrew from much of Europe.”

    Try looking up Saints Francis de Sales and Peter Canisius for starters. The history of Poland also involved a heroic Jesuit mission to keep that country from becoming Protestant.

    Rome didn’t withdraw: it was forced out by murder. Not that there wasn’t the same on our side against the Protestants, but to say that the popes quiescently accepted the religious division of Western and Central Europe is simply wrong. As late as the Peace of Westphalia one can find the popes railing against a permanent Catholic-Protestant division of Europe.

  2. Jimmy Mac says:

    “The very notion of reform might imply that what we were doing before was defective. It might also open up doubt as to what we might change. Maybe we’ll be wrong again.”

    I guess this is also known as the ostrich approach to being church. If we keep our heads buried in “the past” we don’t have to worry about how to deal with the now and the future.

    The history of this church and all others is rife with doing things wrong. Why else the Reformation? Why else the Franciscans? Why else the loss of the European working classes? Why else the alignment of the ecclesiastical power structure with dictatorships?

    The most serious defect, however, is the ever-arching power of clericalism. Or, as Richard John Neuhaus put it in 1989: “The problem of clericalism is composed of several problems. It is the problem of a caste that arrogates to itself undue authority, that makes unwarranted claims to wisdom, even to having a monopoly on understanding the mind of God. The consequence is the great weakening of the Church by denigrating or excluding the many gifts of the Spirit present in the people who are the Church. The problem of clericalism arises when ‘the church’ acts in indifference, or even contempt, toward the people who are the Church.”

    A partial solution to all of this fear and foreboding is to admit the obvious: the visible church on earth is lumbering on a road to salvation. Mistakes will be made. Even the papacy is not indefectible. Live with it; learn from the mistakes; and move on, trusting in the Holy Spirit to keep our eyes open to future mistakes.

    If you can’t live with the very human side of being church on earth, you might be in the wrong religion.

  3. Liam says:

    “By the time the Council of Trent was convened, the Catholic Church had pretty much written off the Reformation.”

    Well, that depends entirely on what you mean by “the Reformation”. It’s true that hopes of full reconciliation held by some on both sides were dashed in the early 1540s, just before the council.

    But that’s not saying too much.

    If by “Reformation” one means reform, then the statement is simpy wrong. Reformers continued to be very active and influential in the Roman church, even at the papal level. One particular pope was a profound disappointment (Paul IV) in this regard during the period and actively tried to subvert the workings of Trent as a reforming council. But he was, in the end, defeated.

    The demonizing of Trent as a primarily an anti-reforming council (John O’Malley’s “Trent and All That” is particularly unreliable in that regard, taking lots of liberties and making a number of signal omissions) is lazy but comfortable history for the Anglosphere so used to the Whig school of history.

    Which is not to say I subscribe to the “Trent as Catholic Reformation” school. I don’t think the “Counter Reformation/Catholic Reformation” nomenclature/ideological battles are good history. What is it high time for it to get PAST those historiographical battles. Your post is mired right in the middle in them – in the same company as those whom you criticize.

    (OK, this post got my historian’s dander up. It’s not personal. I am tired of Catholics falling for this old crap.)

    Anyway, on a more creative front, may I suggest two places to take Trent’s reforms further:

    1. the seminary system pioneered by S Charles Borromeo; and

    2. building upon the sacramental revolution of Pope St Pius X, the revolution in lay spirituality pioneered by SS Ignatius Loyola, Philip Neri, Francis de Sales and Jean de Chantal.

    Trent and its aftermath offer a wealth of positive agendas for Catholic progressives. Woe unto us who treat Trent as a foe. Bad on us.

  4. Liam says:

    As for the “modern recovery of rubricism”:

    Recovered from what? It hardly left the room. It just assumed the guise of “We do X this way here”. Rome’s rubrics simply got displaced by local rubrics.

    But even if they weren’t printed in red, they were often enforced much more harshly than Rome’s.

    Rubricism lives long and well on either side of the liturgical culture war.

  5. Sherry Weddell says:

    Thanks, Fr. Michael and Liam:

    I was also going to comment about the completely ahistorical nature of the idea that the Church withdrew from Europe or had given up on “non-Catholics” at the Council of Trent. The 17th century was one of the greatest times of new and effective apostolic initiatives and missionary endeavor in the history of the Church – and it was drawing upon the Council of Trent when it did so.

    I know that today, Trent is usually invoked to mean anything but innovation but that is projecting our battles onto a very different time. I have usually found those who do so to be remarkably ignorant of what happened when the Council of Trent was actually implemented by the outstanding men and women we now call saints. blesseds, and Doctors. None of them would have qualified as “traditionalists” as we think of them today.

  6. Liam says:


    Thanks in turn.

    Many to this day tend to assume “reformer” = Protestant or very agitated/unhappy Catholic during the period*. I think informed historian’s speculation would place a majority of “reformers” remaining on the Roman “side” of the Reformation century or so. What would you say about that?

    What I have long found interesting is how quickly Rome adjusted, all things considered, to the mid-17th century “settlement”. Not withdrawing but moving on to a broader field of vision. Within a half century we see Rome receding from pretending to arbitrate Europe. And at this point we can see Rome quite taken with an Oriental focus (not just China but the Near East and elsewhere) in addition to vibrant colonies of Bourbon Spain and gold-rich Braganca Portgual. Within another half century we see in Benedict XIV the herald of the more spiritually-focused papacy we associate with modernity – of course, Napoleon’s imprisonment of two successive popes (the latter of whom was shockingly generous to Napoleon’s relatives in the aftermath) kicked that up a notch, as it were.

    * How to define the “period”? Well, certainly reform was on the agenda by the late 1400s – and by reform I mean something more than the conciliarist/papalist dialectic (to use an anachronism) that dominated the period up to the mid-15th century. And key Protestant heralds obviously extend beyond Luther to Zwingli (whose spirit is much more alive today than is given credit) and Bucer, then Calvin and the many others. The Protestant side was as convulsed within as the Catholic up through the Thirty Years War. So perhaps we can call it 1500-1650 for the sheer arbitrariness of round numbers.

  7. Todd says:

    Thanks for a vigorous discussion on this. Like the post-Vatican II period, Trent certainly had its saint-heroes. It also had those who were more willing to turn back the clock on reform or evangelization–I’m thinking of the refusal to adapt missionary efforts for China, widely conceded as Christendom’s greatest lost opportunity.

    Jimmy, I think you have ferreted out the true enemy of holiness and reform: clericalism.

  8. John Heavrin says:

    I’ve just read the NCR piece. Todd, you and I will never agree on matters liturgical, to say the least, and from my perspective the editorial seems a bit shrill and has a tone of something like panic. Marini is yesterday’s man, making yesterday’s arguments, dismissing even the Pope’s views as “nostalgia.” Of course, he discredits this “answer” by asking how those who have no memory for the pre-conciliar Church could be nostalgic for it. How indeed? Must be something besides nostalgia, your excellency.

    As for NCR and its “hermeneutic,” I think this phrase near the end of the piece captures it: “Liturgy is the visible expression of the arrangement of power.” Is that what it is? Is that what you learned in your studies, Todd? The guiding principle of your work? I wouldn’t have attributed such a cynical notion, even to NCR. No wonder the changes were so extensive and never-ending, if the liturgy is nothing more than an “arrangement,” subject to constant “re-arrangement.” Why not? I believe that Liturgy is the highest and most necessary act of worship, required of us by God.

    It might not seem like it, but I have some sympathy for Marini, and for the anonymous authors of the NCR editorial, and for all those who believed so strongly in what they thought the Council called for, and have seen their aspirations come to disappointment. Outliving one’s dreams, however misbegotten, is a bitter fate.

    Farewell, Archbishop Marini.

  9. John Heavrin says:

    And, I would encourage all to read Fr. Zuhlsdorf’s treatment of the NCR piece. Some of his observations are rather pointed, but I think overall his reactions have merit.

  10. Liam says:


    That refusal took the better part of 150 years, interestingly enough. The brakes were not slammed suddenly but with much “process”.

    And, a couple of hundred years later, that refusal was itself overturned. A good example of a causa that was not finita.

    And clericalism knows no ideological boundary, as we all know. You will find clericalist champions of liturgical reform and clericalist opponents. So that’s a wash.

  11. Todd says:

    I suppose context adds a good amount to meaning. If I regularly read Fr Z’s plain-bold-red print attempts to create a discussion, perhaps I might think a solitary essay shrill or something. To my thinking, the attempt to recreate Fox News or Jerry Springer seems a little sorry.

    As for progressive liturgists, I can only speak for myself. I’ve never been very happy with the hermeneutic of pragmatism dominating the American show–I’ve found those opponents to liturgical reform far more numerous–and dangerous–than people with honest aspirations to beauty and ritual.

    Liam, thanks for commenting. As you know, I’ve never had much taste for clericalists in Vatican II clothing. Much more helpful and productive is the discussion with those who bring substantive objections to the table. Perhaps that’s something we could have used more of in the 70’s.

    Process and reversals aside, the result today is that while dithering, Christendom lost China for several hundred years. Regaining it in the next century or two can’t be pinned on a realization of Trent.

  12. Liam says:


    Thanks. I am not sure how much China was lost by the 18th century Rites Controversy settlement. China was then at her *zenith* imperially and China and (at least in the first part of the century) India were still far more prosperous than Europe. This sometimes shocks Westerners to remember.

    It was not until the mid-18th century – by which time the Islamic world had endured a triple cataclysm (the near contemporaneous collapse of the Turkish, Persian and Mogul empires) – and the British capital-industrial revolution began to take serious root, that the East began to recede in relative dominance. Even then, it took another century for that recession to be fully revealed.

    Which is to say I am not sure China offered rich prospects at that time.

    I agree that “Trent” is not a “formula” for “winning” China, as it were. But I don’t think there is a program as such for that. Souls are saved, not nations. If anything, Trent moved us away from the notion of saving nations because by that time the Church had begun to realize that the nation-state was a problem, not a solution. (Remember, there were many nation-states in Europe that were hugely vested in preventing rapprochment with the Rome.)

    What you can see I am proposing it that progressives claim Trent for our own, rather than treat it as shibboleth for traditionalism. (Per my usual, of course.)

  13. Todd says:

    Liam, I can see your point on claiming Trent. Perhaps I take for granted my theological training that looked upon Trent as a strongly favorable event.

    I’ve always thought that the problem was not Trent as such, but the seeds of ultramontanism and other unfortunate reactions to the modern world of the 1800’s.

  14. Liam says:


    Indeed, those were *not* the product of Trent, and it has been a significant error for progressive Catholics to conflate them.

    As for the unfortunate reactions, I am struck by how *UN*extreme the reactions were considering the provocations. I do think the Holy Spirit guided Rome past many sandbars of extremism that few credit nowadays. (I know there are many who would find Pius IX extreme, but in his context he was hardly. Even the Syllabus of Errors, though perhaps rhetorically it sounds extreme in retrospect (and by many at the time) – no, I am not going to claim the Syllabus for progressivism, fear not.

    Then again, all my ancestors came to the US from countries where there was persecution of Catholics (Ireland, Germany and Russian-occupied Poland), so perhaps I don’t idealize what Rome confronted.

    The pathways taken guided the Church to a position of skepticism about the use of warfare by the modern nation-state and to champion the inherent dignity of each human person as a matter of natural law free of utilitarian and consequentialist calculus (whether of the socialist, ideological capitalist or pragmatic realpolitik sort). Even the UN has yet to go that far.

    Keep our eyes on the BIG picture, and what you see is something different (in some aspects, far different) than is typically portrayed in news magazines and many blogs.

    It requires a constant readjusting of perspective from the ones we are usually drawn to. That’s taxing work we often avoid.

  15. Todd:

    I think you did a fine job defending the editorial you think the NCR should have written; unfortunately, it’s not the one they did write.

    –Usual Suspect, rooted in fear, pursuing the hermeneutic of obstruction.

    (Or so I’m told.)

  16. Liam says:

    Fr Martin

    Very well put.

  17. Todd says:

    Fr Fox, point taken, but on the other hand those who wrote the editorial aren’t liturgists and don’t write from the viewpoint of liturgy. Clearly I would have written something different.

    I think you made good points on your blog post, but fouled it up a bit by getting off track with your assessment of “shrill” and speaking of friends among the episcopacy. That seemed a stretch to me for someone who wanted to stick to topic.

  18. Todd:

    Well, of course they aren’t liturgists, that’s beside the point. If they want to write on this subject, then either they know what the heck they’re talking about, or they stick to what they know.

    That they went off on this subject so badly — driven, by, what? What urgency? What kept them from being a little cooler and more deliberate?

    Sure sounds shrill to me.

  19. Todd says:

    “Sure sounds shrill to me.”

    I tend to be more cynical about this kind of thing. Marini’s book is out, and NCR, like other media, are there to capitalize on a story of interest. It has been part of NCR’s pattern to feature a story from at least two angles and contribute an editorial comment to sum it up in their management’s eyes.

    Shrill? No.

  20. John Heavrin says:

    “Liturgy is the visible expression of the arrangement of power.”

    What do you think of this contention, Todd?

    I find it depressing to the point of nausea.

    And what does it say about NCR that this, of all formulations, is the one they choose to define “liturgy”?

  21. Liam says:


    It’s a depressingly materialistic perspective. One encouraged by academia – yes, this is the most enduring legacy of as (to) arrangements of power.

    When it is deployed in argument, red flags (pun intended) should go up alerting to the possibility of lazy argument.

  22. Todd:

    It continually fascinates and amuses me to watch you come riding to the rescue of advocates of one strange cause after another, as they waver, clutching self-inflicted wounds, and there you are, manfully declaring, “how dare you aggress, you forces of obstruction! Have you no pity? Have you no decency, even now? Oh, oh! the humanity!”

    Then, when even your own allies wonder what the heck you are thinking, you stand up, expressing shock: “who, me? Why–why, I have nothing to do with these people!

    Why, I could have sworn, at the beginning of this thread, you were defending the NCR’s editorial. Silly me!

    –Usual Suspect, rooted in fear, pursuing the hermeneutic of obstruction.

  23. Mike says:

    “Liturgy is the visible expression of the arrangement of power”

    Where, pray, do they say that that’s all it is? Do you deny that it’s true?

    Yes, it’s materialistic. So what? It’s also an argument about (and against) clericalism.

  24. John Heavrin says:

    Mike, for me it’s hard not to conclude that the mindset which produces a line like that sees the Mass as a political act. It’s as if the NCR editorialists see the VII changes to the Mass as a political triumph, a successful “re-arrangement” of power relationships, an exhiliarating victory, a championship ring, and they’ll be damned if they’ll give it up. As if the Holy Spirit spoke in their favor, and will speak no further.

    If I thought of the Mass as a prize in a power struggle, I would have no interest in it. That any Catholic views the Mass in this way is depressing to me.

    I think it’s sad that these people fear the loss of some sort of power; sadder still that they aspire to inclusion in what they regard as an “arrangement of power” at all. Is that what Christ wants of us, wants us to turn our worship of Him into?

    The Mass is the highest form of worship of God, the most perfect encounter with the supernatural we have. How sad to think of it as a trophy.

  25. Liam says:

    The article defines that statement as what is important to know about liturgy.

    And it’s not True.

  26. Todd says:

    “Liturgy is the visible expression of the arrangement of power.”

    What do you think of this contention, Todd?

    I’d agree with Liam. However, I’d also say that liturgy, being ritual, may indeed express some element of social structure. It’s hardly a point of condemnation.

    I’d also comment that if one can’t get beyond the sociology to arrive at the true definition of liturgy, then one misses the boat. Liturgy can be corrupted into a more political expression, and I’ve seen it damaged so from both the left and the right on the parish level.

    Fr Fox, I think you indeed misread me at one point earlier this month, suggesting my criticism of one group implied I had allied myself with another. As you know, I take many seemingly contrary positions, triangulating myself, as it were, from what I dislike within both pro-choice and pro-life camps, as one example.

    This has not been the first time you’ve jumped to conclusions regarding some imagined teary-eyed defense of mine. I attacked the critics of Rowan Williams–you assumed I was defending him. The same situation is present here. Liam and others often challenge me and try to ferret out what my particular opinions are–I don’t mind giving them. Discussing an NCR editorial isn’t a zero-sum game. When pushed I won’t adhere to it 100%, but I can be critical of critics, who I think, have missed the point. Or in the case of Fr Z, argue their case poorly.

  27. Dale Price says:

    Really good thread, folks. And thanks for the blessings for our latest child, Todd. Much appreciated!

    Wading into the topic: Sounds to me like the NCR editorialists are the ones guilty of nostalgia. It’s just that theirs happens to be a generation later than the ones they claim to be fencing with. It would have been nice had some of the enduring problems associated with implementation of the reform been given even a pro forma nod. That it isn’t shows that the NCR wing has dug in its heels. What was said of the Bourbons applies in spades to the editorial: “They have learned nothing and have forgotten nothing.”

    More than nice–actually, it’s necessary, if anyone wants to see peace in the liturgical valley. This sort of bitter-endism only gives ammo to their putative foes.

    And good catch, John–the “power” formulation is one of the most dismaying things I’ve read about liturgy in quite some time.

  28. Dale Price says:

    Where, pray, do they say that that’s all it is? Do you deny that it’s true?

    As formulated, firmly denied. It’s an “understanding” that smacks of someone’s half-remembered undergrad critical theory course. As such, it’s foreign to any authentic understanding of the Catholic liturgy.

    Yes, it’s materialistic. So what?

    With that, you’ve ceded the argument. Liturgy can’t be fruitfully analyzed solely in materialistic terms.

    It’s also an argument about (and against) clericalism.

    No, it’s not. The experience of reform post-council suggests that old-fashioned clericalism is often replaced by the lay variety, complete with shiny degrees and certifications. Some form of ring kissing is still expected.

  29. nonjuror says:

    Written off the Reformation?
    The Council of Trent was a reformation and a very successful one at that. According to North European critics at the time Trent went even further and was described by the English theologian, Thorndyke as, “not so much the mending of an old church ,but the making of a new one. In other words the behaviour of the bishops at Trent in abandoning all on to the shoulders, or in the hands of the papacy of,the papacy was tantamount to starting a new Church.

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