An Absent or Active God?

An interesting essay at the Chant Cafe here. Kathy Pluth picks up on Cardinal Sarah’s continuing sojourn in the seventies to posit two constrasting view of Church and how worship follows from each.

I like the question: do we see ourselves as orphans?

If God is absent from the world … then we are on our own. We are orphan children of an absent God, making our own way, and depending primarily on each other. Petitions and hymns are discussions among ourselves about values. The congregation is the primary instantiation of community. The most appropriate posture is humans facing humans, closing the circle. Intelligibility is of highest importance.

I would suggest this describes a not-insignificant portion of Tridentine Catholicism. To many, God indeed seemed very far away: disinterested in Europe tearing itself apart in four centuries of aristocrat-inspired warfare, oppressed workers told to “offer it up,” and in America, a lot of ethnic-flavored religion, many generations of it before we had a good number of clergy for a generation or two.

Mass was a less significant part of Catholic life.  It was an obligation, but what really floated the Catholic religious boat was the community gathering for devotions, meals, and family-inspired traditions.

By the way, those “petitions and hymns … about values” were quite often teaching moments. Because, you know, you have that captive audience at Mass, and why not tell them what they should do?

Here’s the other side of Ms Pluth’s coin:

If God is actively at work in the world here and now, on earth and in earthlings, continually strengthening and raising us, then liturgy is a privileged opportunity to meet God. Liturgical language expresses our dependence on God’s help. Petitions and hymns ask for more and more divine intervention, and not only for those present in one time and place, but for all people, living and the dead. The most appropriate posture involves all of the people facing the divine presence. Receptivity to grace is our highest action, and God Himself is of the highest importance.

Not much to argue with here, but I would suggest the current challenge, for both traditional and contemporary Catholics, is the need to widen the permissino we give God to enter into our lives. The conciliar call is the universal holiness into which we are all baptized. If God is of the highest importance, why wouldn’t we invite him into our car on the way out of the church parking lot, into our homes and workplaces, into the times when we speak or sing of what we should do, and pretty much everywhere we are?

Liturgical language is as expressive as any other human language. Read the Psalms. Not all are about dependence. Some are about joy. Some express anger and tell God what to do. Some even quote the words of God or tell other people what to do or sing.

My problem with reform2, or whatever one wants to call it, is that the vision is too narrow. It’s a safety net: what worked once, for someone else, will work for nearly everybody today. If it gets a fifty-fifty mix with the so-called people-centered liturgy of today, we’ll be better off than before. Count me a skeptic on that. The wider horizons, the deeper oceans are places nobody has yet begun to explore. The question is not one of God’s absence or action, but ours.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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11 Responses to An Absent or Active God?

  1. Liam says:

    I suggest part of this is a temperamental issue: whether one has a *strong tendency* to universalize one’s experiences or desires as those of most other folks or not: Because X does/doesn’t work well for me, it’s likely/unlikely to work well for most other folks.

    Btw, I don’t think that the alternative is universal subjectivism (which is typically the fear of those with the above strong tendency).

    Rather, I suggest it’s that we cultivate we be careful to discern what requires a “hard bite”, what might more be prudently be held with a “soft bite”, what should be sniffed carefully, and what should be disgorged if taken in error….

  2. David D. says:

    “Mass was a less significant part of Catholic life. It was an obligation, but what really floated the Catholic religious boat was the community gathering for devotions, meals, and family-inspired traditions.”

    LOL. Even if pre-Conciliar Mass attendance was in part driven by a sense of moral obligation no longer felt in present times, how is that not preferable to the ever dwindling figures of today’s seemingly necrotic church? Is “small church getting smaller” your new mantra?

    • Todd says:

      Perhaps it is beyond any living memory, but I recall speaking with people in the rural Midwest from three or four generations ago. Priests would arrive every few weeks to few months. And the 19th century witness is more priest-less than today: the very occasional missionary and children learning in homes. I think the ethnic experience up into the 60’s was still pretty strong.

      As for your question, the biggest dwindling in this country was over Humanae Vitae. I would cite the nervous tick in the hierarchy grasping for old ways as contributing as much as anything to it. Europe, of course, was dwindling long before the US and HV. My mantra? Matthew 28:19-20. Always. Making disciples. Believers simply obedient are not enough. Never were.

  3. Tony Phillips says:

    My problem with reform2, or whatever one wants to call it, is that the vision is too narrow. It’s a safety net: what worked once, for someone else, will work for nearly everybody today.

    I think you may be misunderstanding traditionalism. No doubt there are those who want to re-impose old ways of doing something on the entire church. But there are many who simply want to be able to worship in the way that speaks to their hearts, without being forced by an authoritarian hierarchy to particpate in liturgy they find dry and barren.

    Consider this:
    1) The V2 liturgical ‘reforms’ have, on balance, been a failure. But the hierarchy seems incapable of ever admitting failure. Fifty years is a long time. Can you imagine Cocal Cola pretending for 50 years that ‘New Coke’ was a smashing success?
    2) These so-called reforms were imposed on an unwilling church by a dictatorial pope who had no authority to do what he presumed to do. Simply put, the pope can’t do whatever he wants. Unfortunately, with very few exceptions, the bishops obeyed, and they should not have done so. (As for Lefebvre, the older I get the more I hold him in esteem. It’s too bad that he died an excommunicate, but he followed his conscience and is in good company–Savanorola, George Tyrrell, etc.)
    3) Vatican 2 and the catastrophic liturgical ‘reforms’ that followed could never have happened without Vatican 1. The mentality of infallibility is what drives the ultramontane notion that the pope can do whatever he wants, that he answers only to the Lord (a view that Paul VI actually wanted to include in Lumen Gentium!)
    4) Vatican 2 extended the very un-oecumenical stumbling blocks that Vatican 1 created. The novel notion of papal infallibility was extened to the bishops in Lumen Gentium, and the laity were told they owed ‘prompt obedience’ to their pastors.
    5) I’m no fan of Paul VI, but when it comes to Humanae Vitae I’m forced to admit that even a broken clock is right twice a day. But I can’t swallow your suggestion that hordes of people left the church over it. It’s quite possible to come to church whilst ignoring HV. But it’s impossible to come to church and ignore the Novus Ordo. it’s the liturgy that drove people away, but the big question is how long can it take for an episcopacy that considers itself infallible to admit it goofed?

    • Todd says:

      Well, Tony, thanks for commenting, but I pretty much reject everything you’ve written here. As for what drove people away in the US, a University of Chicago sociology study in 1974 rather confirms that HV drove away more people than MR1. The scientist’s conclusion was that if anything, the new liturgy staunched the hemorrhage somewhat. What do traditionalist communities find? Are they filled with Catholics who were inactive in the 70’s and 80’s? Or did all the embittered Latin Mass advocates migrate to the Orthodox? Or atheism? Seems that if that’s the case, the liturgy wasn’t as formative as some might think.

      I will say that if anybody’s asked the question, it’s CARA. I don’t know if bishops are ready to survey what Catholics think. though some have done that recently with family issues.

  4. Tony Phillips says:

    Todd, I’ve long since moved from the social sciences to the natural sciences, but in both camps researchers pretty much find what they set out looking for—in other words, people see what they want to see. The die-hard Spirit-of-Vatican-IIers are convinced that the collapse of Mass attendance that followed the liturgical changes is nothing but a massive coincidence, and will bend over backwards to find any alternative explanation under the sun—HV, demographic changes, acid rain—anything but the most obvious one.

    Most of the swarms of faithful who drifted away did not become Lefebvrists or join one of the other independent chapels run by priests who couldn’t in conscience conform to the NO.* They didn’t become Orthodox (not an option in most places). They simply melted away. They’re lost, as are their children and grandchildren. So no, most traditional Latin masses aren’t frequented by people who remember the old rite and walked out when the mayhem started (not a huge group anyway—most of them are dead).

    You say that if people left the church over the liturgical changes, then the [old] liturgy wasn’t as formative as some might think.. Here you lose me. It’s precisely because the old liturgy can and does provide that sense of the sacred that people kept coming. When it was taken away, people left. It was ‘formative’, very much so.

    Todd, you say you reject most everything I’ve written. Do you reject the notion that the pope’s authority over the universal church is limited, that he can’t simply do whatever he wants? Do you reject the statement that bishops (including the pope) can make mistakes? Do you reject the proposition that Christian unity can never be achieved until we as Catholics admit that the many councils held in the West over the past millennium were not really ‘oecumenical councils’ , that they (including Vatican I and II) can in fact err? Do you reject the statement that Paul VI imposed the NO in an insensitive, dictatorial and authoritarian manner (regardless of the question of the extent of his authority and the relative value of the new rite), that caused great distress to many faithful worldwide and continues to do so to this day?

    (*There was one such chapel near where I lived in Boston. The archbishop cut the priest off completely—whether he was formally excommunicated I don’t know, but he was completely cut loose and tossed out. If he’d been a mere child molester they’d have left him alone.)

    • Liam says:


      The issue over papal control over the Roman liturgy predates both Vatican councils. It’s pregnant in the centralization in the Tridentine reforms and the availability of the printing press in a time of globalization. But it goes even further back to at least to the 11th century pivot of the Roman church that drew in turn on preceding centuries of developments.

      Toggling Vatican I off won’t resolve the issue, as it has much deeper roots.

    • Todd says:

      What Liam said, plus this: Vatican II was the beginning, not the blueprint. Virtually every bishop signed off on liturgical reform. You would seem to suggest that a few million Catholics would hold a billion hostage to a Renaissance reform of the liturgy and change nothing. People wanted change. Leaders saw the need for it. You and a relatively few others disagree. What are you going to do about it? Melt away and become unbelievers? Put your trust in the authority of the red ink printed on an inanimate object? Suggest everybody is in on a conspiracy to destroy the faith through bad liturgy? Do you recognize this comes off as whining and sour grapes to those who listen to traditionalists?

      Certainly bishops and popes can err. One significant error is a lack of a wider consultation. Others are MR3 and Summorum Pontificum. You don’t have to convince me that synods are a better solution. But I think we would be seeing even more liturgical reform if synods were the vehicle for change in the Church.

      • I find the Traditionalists to be very hypocritical. They complain that the liturgical reforms were forced upon Catholics against their will, and yet they now wish to force the EF on Catholics against our will. They also have a kind of magical thinking about the EF.

  5. Tony Phillips says:

    Liam, the Vatican 1 was the culmination of papal self-aggrandisement. No pope before that council would ever have dreamed of presuming to do what Paul VI did afterwards, to impose a sweeping overhaul of the liturgy. (That didn’t happen at Trent, by the way, as some SOV2ers like to think.)

    Emma—wow! I can’t speak for all traditionalists, but I’ve certainly never said that the NO should be suppressed. Clearly there are many priests, most of them aging, who are very attached to it. There are also laity who are attached to it—though not nearly so many as you may think.[*] It would be cruel to deny these people what is clearly a source of comfort to them; that would simply replicate the hard-heartedness of Paul VI and his crony bishops.

    What I’m suggesting is that we should stop trying to force our liturgical preferences down each other’s throats. Todd objects to Summorum Pontificorum, because Benedict (himself very much a driver of V2) showed sensitivity to those who remain attached to the old rite. But why would you (Todd, Emma, et al.) want to tell other people how to run their spiritual lives? Do you really know more than they do?

    Todd, the fact that so many bishops signed off on V2 is important if you pretend that the post-schism western councils are infallible oecumenical councils. The votes at V1 were overwhelming too (after all, a couple hundred bishops slunk off home rather than staying to vote ‘no’.) Do you really think Christian unity can be achieved without rejecting key provisions of V2? (I’m thinking of the re-statement of V1’s novel doctrine of papal infallibility and its extension to the bishops, and the insistence that the role of the laity is ‘prompt obedience’.)

    Furthermore, you know very well that most of the novelties of the NO were not foreseen in the documents of V2. As for those few that were—well, you’ve noticed by now that I’m very willing to criticise the council, as parts of it are in my view flawed. The direction to insert the ‘Prayers of the Faithful’, for instance, I think was a mistake—in practice it has been dreadful and would best be done away with. Had the council been truly wise, it would have directed that reform consist of alternatives to parts of the mass (rather than mandatory replacement) and that these alternatives be tried on a provisional basis, so that if and when they prove unsuccessful they could be dropped. But the council fathers weren’t wise enough to see failure as a possibility. (In any event,the true need then (as now) was not liturgical reform, but ecclesiastical and hierarchical reform.)

    I think die-hard NO people need to recognise something: those who are attached to the old rite are not going away. The powers that be have tried to crush us for decades. But we’re here and we’re staying. You can begin to show charity, or persist in a SOV2 totalitarian mindset, but we’re not going to disappear.

    [*I think most people in the pews—those that are left—continue to put up with whatever they’re given in the liturgy. Restoring the Tridentine liturgy would make little difference to them. Keep in mind we’re not talking about use of the vernacular, which can be and has been used in the Tridentine Mass. Consequently, I don’t think Todd’s numbers game reflects reality.]

    • Todd says:

      A few things …
      1. I have no interest in telling people how to run their spiritual lives. Even non-Christians. As a Roman Catholic I live my faith publicly, and encourage people out of the Church and within it by example, hopefully, and by dialogue.
      2. Vatican II operated with authority that is widely accepted, and the liturgy was reformed as a result of input not only from bishops, but from the baptized faithful.
      3. I wouldn’t want reform2 or traditional Catholics to go away–unlike the sentiment I’ve heard and experienced from many of them personally. (Emma’s experience is common, not rare.) But they constitute a very small fraction of Catholics. In the best of circumstances, their voices were heard, then rejected for the mainstream worship of God in the Roman tradition.
      4. I’m a skeptic when it comes to the brand of congregationalism you propose adrift from any sort of authoritative magisterium.

      By the way, I would agree that most people in the pews go along. I don’t think encrusted unintelligible ritual bumps them out of that, but if a traditionalist community wants to buck that trend, more power to them.

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