Myth Marble

The Lewis Crusade takes me to task for suggesting the level of catechesis among Catholics is fine. Did I write that? I don’t think I wrote that. I think an adequate level of catechesis in some areas of the faith has yet to be realized among Catholics, but my premise is that the “holes” in Catholicism predate the Second Vatican Council.

There’s a gleamy-eyed mythology being sold by theocons and traditionalists, a spun tale of an age of gold and marble in which all was quiet, orderly, faithful, and picket-fenced. Vatican II and its hijackers are merely the product of the 60’s. We have villains, like the Consilium or Richard McBrien who just plain spoiled the gilded age of Catholicism, especially American Catholicism. And we have heroes, bedecked in all sorts of ecclesiastical finery.

Maybe you have a few examples of your own, but some of the fairy tales I’ve heard include:

Adherents of Vatican II abandoned good catechesis.

Adherents of Vatican II trashed church art.

Adherents of Vatican II ignored our musical heritage.

Adherents of Vatican II despoiled faith in the Real Presence.

Adherents of Vatican II are to blame for a lack of obedience.

My take–and I defy anyone to prove otherwise–is that catechesis, art, and the culture of faith were languishing pretty much throughout the whole Catholic world by the 1950’s, and that European Catholicism was in crisis at least since the Great War, if not the mid-19th century. Popes don’t get inspired to call councils just for the kick of watching or accelerating the decay of centuries-old religious tradition. Tridentine Catholicism was in no way up to the task of evangelization in the modern world. Unless they were buying into the SCGS* notion promoted by some Catholics these days.

While pre-conciliar Catholics did have a catechism and a hand missal (they had to struggle mightily to get the latter) I don’t know that as a group they would pass the litmus test today’s conservatives set. The US was mission country for centuries, and I suppose that outside of a few enclaves, pre-conciliar Catholics had gaping holes in their catechesis, as we do today. My suggestion is that for committed Catholics, the situation has improved, and that we have a better knowledge of liturgy and Scripture. Probably a good idea of the limits of pastors and bishops, too.

I’ve discussed art and music many times before. My friend Lee practically makes my point in this post. Look at the “traditional” statues and consider their commentariat defense. He partly dismisses my complaint of painted plaster reproductions as “intellectual,” but my suggestion is that ecclesiastical art and architecture in the US never achieved a high standard, outside of a few select examples. Vatican II hasn’t installed a universal appreciation for art, let alone music. I’d chalk this up as an instance in which Vatican II has yet to achieve its potential. By the way, Lee and I both were parishioners in a place where the priest used a fifteen-inch pottery repro cross for Good Friday, and we arrived at the lyrics, “Behold, behold, the ceramic of the cross: on which is painted Jesus …”

The meme about a lack of faith in the Real Presence: this still gets a lot of airplay and blogplay, despite an argument full of holes. My hypothesis is simple enough: Faith in the Eucharist is still strong, and it was never perfect before the Council.

As for obedience, well, just consider George Weigel. Run the stupid meme up the flagpole and before you know it, the pope’s getting duped by baddies in the curia, Roman prelates are being pegged as disloyal, and everybody’s talking about the “hapless bench” of bishops.

If you want to scare your “o”rthodox youngsters with bedtime or camp stories, this mythology serves its purpose well enough. But if you’re going to discuss with adults, it’s time to bring more to the table than ogres, white knights, distressed damsels, and dragons.

And all this isn’t to say the  Church doesn’t have serious problems with catechesis, art, obedience, ministry, and all the other issues. It does. But we live in a real world, not a fairy tale. We don’t need pious solutions that, in essence, toss something old out there, cross ourselves and say a rosary in hope that it will somehow reenchant Catholicism.

* Small Church, Getting Smaller


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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10 Responses to Myth Marble

  1. GodsGadfly says:

    First of all, you’re using the term “adherents of the Council”, where the Council does none of the things you’re saying. Most of us “theocons” or whatever you want to call people who actually like unadulterated Catholicism, point the blame on the “spirit of Vatican II”.

    The particulars of what the Council actually taught are irrelevant, of course. In the past, you’ve been confronted with the actual statements of the Council, and yet still managed to twist them to suit your agenda.

    Were the problems in the Church before the Council?
    Yes, of coures there were.

    That wasn’t the question. You claimed that Catholics were just as poorly catechized then as now.

    The operative word is catechized. At least back then they were *taught*. If you asked the average person before Vatican II questions involving “Catholic grout,” they’d know the answers.

    Even the most liberal 60+ Catholics I know, if pressed, will dump the “We didn’t know what was going on at Mass” myth. Kids were taught the Mass at Catholic school-back when poor families could afford to send their kids to Catholic school–and by serving at the altar or by singing in the choir.

    Catechesis is a separate question from art or liturgy.

    And decrying mass-produced statues, a meme that appears now and then both on “conservative” and “liberal” sites, seems to me just a form of post-Vatican II iconoclasm: “We can’t totally expunge the popular devotion to those repulsive statues, so we’ll reduce the purpose of statues to mere art, and criticize them on aesthetic grounds.”

    As for “small church getting smaller,” it was Cardinal Ratzinger who said that.

    I just say that the Catholic Church needs to look like the Catholic Church–not a clone of the Episcopal or Lutheran heresies–to actually mean anything.

  2. Todd says:

    GG, thanks for coming back to comment. Your post calls to mind a few other myths: Vatican II was a blueprint, all or most liberal Catholics are old, Catholic reform necessarily means looking like reformation churches. In fact, none of this is true.

    As for the statements of the council, I’ve blogged on every section of it. If you have a problem with any particular, just let me know on the post in question. I’ll be happy to engage.

  3. Lee says:

    Todd, I think you misconstued my intention with the post.

    I was not debating the nature of art – or even whether these pieces are “great” art (whatever great really means – or even art for that matter). I did not even call them traditional.

    Whether the statues are great art is inconsequential. What’s more important is that they are pieces of meaningful art.

    The St. Padre Pio Chapel was built largely with donations from the local Italian community. They had little collection boxes in so many area restaurants, pizza parlors, etc. The chapel is modeled after an Italian country church. The statues (and other art) were donated by people because those pieces were meaningful to those people. This is art that helps them to pray and praise. They don’t care if it’s great.

    In talking to people at the chapel, some of them said that they miss the statues that used to be in churches but got renovated out (that Mary statue did not fit in with the remodeling going on in an Auburn Church, so it was to be discarded). The statues and the art remind them of even the churches that were later closed. In fact, the chapel includes the cornerstone and the bell from St. Lucy’s, an Italian parish that was closed and sold.

    For myself, not all that art is art that I would choose, or even like. But I appreciate that it is so meaningful to the people that they bought it – even if it was from some religious catalogue – and dontated it to the chapel. I applaud that and celebrate that.

  4. It should be obvious to anyone who has actually READ the documents of the Second Vatican Council that those who actually adhered to its teachings would be in favor of good catechesis, good church art, the full Catholic musical tradition, faith in the Real Presence of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, in the Eucharist, or proper obedience to Church Authority.

    It is nonetheless the case that those who came after the Second Vatican Council appear to have continued the lapses from all of the above desiderata.

    Some have said that everything we now have is just fine, thank you. Others, while looking around at the cosmic debris after Vatican II, have come to the brilliant conclusion that since all these things continued and accelerated AFTER Vatican II, they happened BECAUSE OF Vatican II. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc, and all that.

    I think that both sides are mistaken.

    I also think that an explanation for the problem may be found in my essay:


  5. Liam says:

    Personal note: My brother lives less than a mile away from that chapel in Gates, and I saw the exterior when I visited in May.

    I don’t think that the aesthetic quality of liturgical art is “inconsequential”. We can debate how dispositive it is or should be, but inconsequential is not a Catholic approach to art (it is, however, a very American approach).

  6. Todd says:

    Bernard, thanks for commenting. I do think there’s a bit of straw in your essay, with which otherwise I would be in agreement in principle.

    Conservatives tout the “hermeneutic of continuity,” but in practice, adopt the “hermeneutic of obstruction,” which has the effect of squelching scholarship, artistic endeavor, not to mention morale.

    Undoubtedly, the human effort of implementing Vatican II has been far from perfect or complete. I certainly welcome the input from those who take exception to my attempts at reflection or theology here, or in practice. But I have no wish to argue or defend from imagined or fringe efforts like “punk Masses” or the “only” three priests with Vatican II-training. (Not sure I would include Fr Z on that one, though.)

  7. Neil says:

    It strikes me that anyone who wants to make a persuasive claim about the “level of catechesis,” whether before or after Vatican II, has to answer a few questions first. Here are eleven of them that spring to mind:

    1. What sort of social science methodology do they plan to use? Or do they merely plan to collect anecdotes?

    2. How do they account for variables? For example, is the “level of catechesis” correlated with educational or literacy levels? Do the “levels of catechesis” of different ethnic groups vary significantly?

    3. Does “catechesis” consist mainly of familiarity with Catholic doctrine? Does it also include biblical literacy? Does it also include practical knowledge (e.g., how to pray, when to genuflect)?

    4. Since “catechesis” most probably does include familiarity with Catholic doctrine, which doctrines are more (and less) important in determining a sufficient “level of catechesis?”

    5. Can the “level of catechesis” be determined by measuring correct answers to direct questions, as on a standardized test? Or can a sufficient “level of catechesis” be demonstrated in other ways, perhaps even by the ability to recite a spiritual autobiography? (Remember that for many Americans, life is still primarily lived in an oral culture.)

    6. Does the “level of catechesis” also require, besides a familiarity with established doctrine, exegesis, and practices, the ability to think theologically in unexpected situations, provide a modicum of spiritual direction in times of difficulty, or lead a fractious Bible study?

    7. What is the “level of catechesis” of someone who seems to thoroughly understand certain Catholic doctrines, but “dissents” from them? Or someone whose familiarity with Catholic doctrines, exegesis and practices is filtered by a “dissenting” theological paradigm?

    8. How do we balance the significance of the “level of catechesis” of “nominal” Catholics with that of “practicing” Catholics with that of Catholics who take a strong, perhaps even professional, interest in Catholic intellectual traditions? Is it possible that the “level of catechesis” of a distinct minority of Catholics has increased, while the “level of catechesis” of a majority has decreased? If so, how do we interpret these results?

    9. Does a sufficient “level of catechesis” require a “performative” faith? Does a study trying to measuring a “level of catechesis” also have to measure discipleship?

    10. Does it matter if a “level of catechesis” had social value that it no longer has? If basic knowledge and ritual performance were ways of maintaining social capital in Catholic urban neighborhoods that no longer exist, how does that affect our interpretation of a declining “level of catechesis”?

    11. Was the “level of catechesis” of American Catholics in the late 1950s unusually high compared to other time periods and geographical areas? If so, how does that affect our interpretation of a declining “level of catechesis” (if we detect such a decline)?


  8. Jimmy Mac says:

    I have just returned from a 3-week jaunt through The Netherlands, Germany and Austria. I visited more churches and cathedrals (a dime a dozen in the old Prinzbishop areas that existed prior to the creation of the modern Germany) that I care to remember.

    As I entered the “Catholic” areas of Bavaria and Austria, I had the chance to see the uber Rococo wing of Baroque at its most odious extremes. Odious is the operative word, next to extremes.
    One thing stood out most clearly in these churches: an excessive amount of “art” was devoted to local saints, Mary and, of course, local Prinzbishops. In many cases, one had to look long and hard to see much focus on Jesus, The Trinity or the Father.
    I’ve heard all the stories on how the good little local people donated their pennies to building these churches (I suspect a good bit of strong-arming by the local clerical and favored family castes had a lot to do with it), how they learned their religion from this are (once you got through the layers of gilt, frilliness, etc., that might have been true), and how their faith was much stronger than now (unprovable, of course.) All I can say is that I could have scraped a kilo of gold off of most of those places and the loss would be negligible. Ad majorem dei gloriam? I doubt it!

    The most odious of odiosity was at Melk Abbey in Austria.

    I attended a solemn sung high mass in the cathedral of Salzburg. The music was spectacular, but the entire mass was performance art with the pew-sitters being attenders rather than participants. Even the local archbishop pretty much was a non-participant (he didn’t read the Gospel nor preach the homily) what with all of the factota doing most of the work.

    All in all, based on the last 3 weeks’ experiences, I think that contemporary liturgical music and art can hold its own in terms of being worship aids.

  9. Wendelin says:

    God’s Gadfly: “Catechesis is a separate question from art or liturgy.”

    No. Oh, no. These are inextricably bound. We can catechize about the liturgy; the liturgy itself can catechize; art certainly catechizes; we can catechize about art. Pope Benedict has spoken about Beauty and Truth being one thing we know the world hungers for- at least one major common denominator between those of Faith and those needing the “catechesis” today.

    If we start to parse our faith into opposed constituencies like this we ironically begin to resemble the “heresies” GG’s speaks of. We are more of a “both…and” Church than “either…or” in these regards.

    As far as that goes (to Jimmy Mac) I also just returned from said South German lands. I agree that the focus is skewed in many of these places but I’m not prepared to completely exclude the idea of listening at Mass.

    Absolutely, Mass can turn into a “performance” but not all presentations that don’t involve the literal congregational voice become distractions or detractions, per se. There’s something to be said for allowing a choir a little room to sing on behalf of the congregation now and then- there’s plenty of precedent for it.

    If anyone doubts that one can’t strike a balance I strongly suggest viewing the recent installation of Archbishop George J. Lucas in Omaha. (I’ve blogged extensively about this). The congregation sang most hymns, acclamations, and responses but the choir did the preludes, Offertory, and post-Communion. Having personally attended, it was one of the most engaging liturgies I’ve participated in.

    It just goes to show there are lots of possibilities.

    Thank you, Neil, for proposing pointed questions regarding an issue that all-too-often devolves into vague and untouchable platitudes.

  10. Jimmy Mac says:

    Miss Marple seth: I like myth marble!

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