Angry Catholics

I was noticing a bit of kerfuffle on PrayTell the other week. Fr Anthony drew some ire for relaying a comment from the editorial board of their blog, wondering why most of the commenters seemed to be of a traditionalist or conservative bent:

Or are all the centrists and leftists too busy to post because they have jobs and are occupied in actual ministry?

Anita and I went to our parish’s “re-Treat” for couples on Sunday. One of the issues we married people deal (or don’t deal) with is anger. Anita and I are fairly successful at dealing with anger when it comes up in our relationship. We have different ways of dealing with it, but generally, it gets dealt with pretty soon. Being mostly peaceable people, I don’t think either of us has the heart to carry the simmer and negativity around for very long.

The presenter, a family therapist, gave us a handout with some general statements about couples and family relationships. One struck me, not because it necessarily had any application to our marriage, but because it seemed to pierce through some of the anger in the Catholic blogosphere, and it might possibly shed some light on how internet Catholics see the Church and their role in it–truthfully–getting beyond the cheerleading:

Anger is the emotion felt when feeling powerless and/or helpless.

In my experience and observation, I’d say the principle applies in both American politics these days and in the internet communities.

It was enough for pro-lifers (to pick one example) to be strung along with twenty-eight years of having GOP control of either the White House or the Capitol, and sometimes even both–only to have precious little accomplished in terms of reducing or eliminating the so-called holocaust of abortion. The war, the economy, and an incompetent presidency sweeps away all of the ruling party in two elections, and no wonder people like Deal Hudson are ticked off. Not only are they out of power, but they don’t even benefit from the illusion of being in power.

As for Catholics, the story may be a bit more complex. In the 60’s and 70’s lay people were invited to church involvement by the bishops of Vatican II and by some of their pastors. It wasn’t so much a lay initiative as the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (which you believe unless you’re a smoker) working through bishops.

So traditionalist-leaning Catholics felt betrayed and powerless, I have no doubt. Also no doubt, many political Catholics felt the same way as years of emphasis on social justice piled up. And no action on reducing abortion, despite a Reagan, two Bushes, and lots of talk from the episcopacy.

I suspect the PrayTell blog is a bothersome tickle for the conservatives and traditionalists who visit there, whether they comment or not. Things that would get a pass on NLM, like the interpretation of “active participation,” are not really an issue at all for liturgical scholars. It’s not unlike a creation scientist attending a paleontology convention. The science of dinosaurs, trilobites, therapsids, brachiopods, and tree ferns is fairly settled in the big picture. A creation scientist may actually have a cool fossil in her or his hands. But if that visitor is going to insist it’s nine-thousand years old, the scientists aren’t going to give their guest the time of day.

PrayTell is raising the temperature simply because their bloggers will apply a strict theology to the liturgical principles presented there. I see mistakes in blogging protocol there–can’t avoid it with internet tyros. And I see people on both sides of the discussions growing frustrated. That’s even more unavoidable.

Commenter Kathy wrote:

I suppose the real sting of the remark arises from the reason the liturgical establishment often seems univocal. Up till a few years ago, and even now in many places, candidates for liturgical positions had to pass a “smell test” of ideology. To say that a conservative liturgist isn’t working or hasn’t been very successful is a lot like saying there haven’t been a lot of Catholic presidents.

In any case, I think the editorial board might show more openness to dialogue with all comers, and at the same time it probably would behoove us reactionaries to behave like guests.

A few last comments.

It’s an exaggeration to say there is or was any single “smell test.” Pastors are vastly different breeds–and they almost always make the final call on hires. Suburban parishes–the ones that actually realize they can afford a liturgy person on staff–are a bit more uniform: they’re mostly all big and they’re pretty catholic. And there is still a large cadre of people who were invited to parish involvement in the 70’s and 80’s and are sticking with it. They don’t feel powerless or helpless–they’ve been included for years. They can and do make life miserable for a staff member who tinkers with liturgy. Some musicians end up in other faith traditions, at least for active ministry. The system is set up for diplomacy more then ideology.

If a conservative liturgist would perpetuate authentic lay ministries, would work with and be open to the scores of parishioners and be able to smooth their agendas and transform into a focus on the Gospel, there’s no reason that such a person wouldn’t find a job today or twenty years ago. I knew a number of organists who fit the bill in this department. They turned their noses up at pianos and pianists, and didn’t even recognize guitars. But they also–rightly–emphasized congregational singing, and other principles of liturgical reform. And they were competent, if not excellent at what they did.

Now, if some new breed of musicians arises with a totally different agenda for church music, I think such people would get a lot of friction in parishes accustomed to something different. I don’t see reform2 musicians getting a lot of traction in American parishes today. Not because there’s system out to get them, but just because they are so far off the mainstream. And if the emphasis is on choral performance and doing the right texts and genres, there are very very few communities waiting for such musicians.

Why aren’t more liberals angry and commenting on PrayTell? One reason is that many of us have not only jobs, but a place in parishes where we feel anything but helpless or powerless. Lots of liberals have given up on the institutional church, but they’re not angry about it. We realize we can and do make a difference where it counts: one person at a time. People who write to Rome? They’re one of thousands who complain. And ultimately, how many bishops get directives to talk to certain pastors to make changes? Very, very few. Not only have some conservatives grown angry with powerlessness in the parish, but the promised recourse to Rome hardly ever materializes into something concrete. And to boot, they’ve managed to poison the local relationships.

As for the few of us who comment on the internet, I can only speak for myself. I got involved on the internet because it was new, and I’m a geek/freak for new computer things. In 2000-02 when I worked in rural Iowa, I found the internet community to be stimulating in a way that liturgy in my small parish wasn’t. After that, I suppose, it was just about a challenge. Any maybe to annoy people a bit. The bigger challenge is the set of relationships with live people in my parish. This forum will always play way back in line from my family,  my parish, and my friends and colleagues.

That leaves us with the anger. My suggested cure for Catholic anger is to get involved. Pray about it, discern an apostolate, and get involved in a personal way with real flesh-and-blood human beings. Make a difference where you can make a difference. It won’t be perfect, but at least you won’t be trying to pass off some Cretaceous clam as evidence for a young Earth.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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7 Responses to Angry Catholics

  1. John Bonham says:

    “My suggested cure for Catholic anger is to get involved.”

    My suggested cure is to remember that we are called to humility and obedience, not doing it my way. “When you have done all you have been commanded, say ‘We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.'” (Luke 17:10)

  2. smf says:

    Great idea! Insult the people you are trying to offer advise to, that always works well! (I hope you were attempting humor, but I have no clear way of knowing over the net.)

    Comparing faithful Catholics who have an appreciation for the traditions and history of the Church, and who have a preference for say the texts of Vatican II read in continuity, rather than some supposed “spirit” that is used to justify anything and everything even in contradiction to the tradition of the church, to young earth creationists is not particularly charitable, hospitable, or welcoming. You would quite quickly alienate such people with such talk, leading them to think they had no place here, or in the parish you are in a leadership position at. Further, to suggest that the views of conservatives or traditionalists on issues such as liturgy are akin to those of young earth creationists is exactly the reason they think their parishes are run by close minded people intent on excluding their views and marginalizing them.

    I think a great many of the people who are of a traditional or conservative mindset don’t identify with anything that goes on in their parish, or if they do they are alienated by the people involved in the particular apostolates. (The language used in regards to things can also be off putting. Most conservatives don’t want to be the “coffee minister” or the “minister of greeting” or any such thing even though they might be perfectly willing to brew a pot of Joe or hold the door open and shake hands.)

    • Todd says:

      smf, thanks for engaging here.

      I’m not looking to convert the angry. They weren’t listening twelve years ago, and they seem less inclined than ever to do so today.

      This post, like most of what I write here, is directed at the observers in the middle. I poke holes in logic and methods and other problems I see in the angry approach.

      I’ve never equated angry Catholics with traditionalist-leaning folks exclusively. I realize there are certainly many angry liberals as well as numerous calm conservatives.

      In fact, I get on quite well with many conservatives–always have. I think angry people are rather like creationists barging into science classrooms, and as I said, angry people come in all sorts.

      And agreement with you on the power of language. Nearly every Catholic I know is turned off by some aspect of church language. There are ministries, apostolates, and volunteer opportunities, and wise Catholics are aware of the distinctions between them.

  3. smf says:

    In my particular case, while I have always been Catholic, I became a serious user of the internet before I became a serious Catholic. Quite frankly, I had to relearn my faith all over again. I had forgotten much of what I had been taught, some of the rest of wrong, and huge amounts were simply lacking. So the internet was one of several resources I turned to when I became more serious about the faith. Oddly, I was more involved in various activities such as the youth group, a parish committee, and things of that sort back when I had some very serious problems in my understanding and commitment to the faith. (I am still far from perfect, but at least now I realize there is something to work on.)

    My parents sometimes wonder why I don’t do more with the parish, after all at my age they were more involved. I have always been interested in helping others, and they know I take an interest in the Church. As I explained to them, I really don’t see a place for me in anything that is going on. Quite frankly I would stick out like a sore thumb in most things happening. My age would in most cases be enough younger that there is in fact a multi-generational gap between me and most of those doing everything in the parish (other than the youth group, with whom there is now something approaching a generation gap the other way). In most of what goes on, being male puts one in a very distinct minority as well. Being single further makes a person an oddity. Then there is the issue that some groups want money, either for membership, or they exist mostly to raise money, and that is not what I have an abundance of.

    When it all adds up, I end up going to mass on as many days as I reasonably can, and that is my main involvement with the Church. Occasionally when there is a request for help with some particular project, I will come, such as when the Church was being undecorated after Christmas and a request was made for some young men to come. I was glad to help, and would be glad to do the same again in the future. After all, that was a very rare example of something where I knew I could be of real help, not just dead weight on some committee.

    I also volunteer time with the Scouts. In fact I do serve on the diocesan Catholic committee on Scouting, though I don’t have any involvement with the troop at the parish, because I think its leaders are on the wrong track, and our personalities/styles clash rather severely. Instead I actually help with the troop at a local Methodist church, even though I think it may be headed in the wrong direction, at least I find the people to be friendly and perhaps a bit less miss-guided regarding their Scouting program.

  4. smf says:

    As for music that is sung by the congregation versus sung on behalf of the congregation, I have mixed views. I have always preferred music that was suitable for congregational singing (and like most untrained musicians, my primary measure is if I can sing it myself). In fact, the sort of stuff that only a very skilled vocalist could pull off I dislike. I also dislike stuff that is unnatural, even if theoretically singable. I also dislike things that only works for true tenors and basses, or worse only for true sopranos and altos. I also pay rather a lot of attention to the content, and at least a few times I have stopped singing and started the intellectual exercise of “name that heresy” and sadly I have found some of my childhood favorites to be at best vapid, and many are still staples of the adult music program.

    Now, on to the mixed part of my view, I do now finally see the value in music that is sung by a choir or soloist and listened to by the congregation. (I used to have an angry reaction to such things, but this is one of the things that has changed in me.) For example, before Midnight Mass at Christmas there are often songs and chants that are not intended for congregational singing alternated with those that are, and I can now better appreciate the beauty of these. Also, I know some parishes do very nice pieces after communion during the period of reflection, often doing something traditional in Latin acapella in a volume that still allows personal thought and prayer.

    I also see no real conflict between the idea of restoring chant and congregational singing. Many of the chants are very easy to learn, and are quite often singable even on the first hearing due to the very natural way they flow. (Or at least that is my experience, plus someone a bit off on a chant is not nearly so disastrous as in modern music.) For my part I very much wish we had some universally known chant settings or even very simple song settings so we could all sing the mass parts together, be it in English or Latin.

    I really dislike the current situation where no two parishes have quite the same take on music, and thus a person can run into all sorts of difficulties with things like diocese wide gatherings or traveling. The particular selections may vary from parish to parish, but the trends behind them seem to differ from diocese to diocese to make matters worse.

    To provide an illustration, I was once on a college retreat with students from a few different campuses. One campus contributed a cantor, another a guitar player, and another a piano player. It was a major effort for them to find things they all three knew, and then there was the issue of the hymnal in use at the parish we were at. Even after all their effort, and even with an eager group inclined toward participation, it was only with great difficulty that the music was carried out at a Mass. After that Mass, there was Adoration and Benediction, for which the retreat master/celebrant lead everyone in some chants and songs, and while there was some hesitation, soon most were adding their voices and at least getting it close enough to right to sound reasonably good.

    I think most conservative or traditionalist types would welcome congregational singing, and in fact see a turn towards certain traditional types of music as being a way toward that. While something like Palestrina is certainly beautiful, I don’t think most would suggest it as a replacement for Kumbaya (which I hope everyone of good taste admits needs replacing, along with a lot of other sub-par stuff).

  5. smf says:

    Oh, and I should say, that I heartily agree with the author’s idea of taking a part in the work of your parish and developing relationships with the people there. I think it is a very commendable idea, particularly given that you prefaced it by suggesting discerning how in particular to do so.

    While involved in campus ministry, there was a core group of us that sort of functioned like an extended family. I felt more at home among those people than at any other time in the Church. Even just social involvement can make a difference in the way one sees things.

    I also applaud those who find real, legitimate, direct ways of assisting in the work of their parish or of some apostolate. I also applaud those who promote truly useful works and those who help find legitimate roles for more of those in their parish.

  6. Orlando says:

    Why is there a picture of my cat on your site?

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