"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Avoiding docetism

Mass this morning is for the Fourth Sunday of Advent; Mass this evening will be Midnight Mass for Christmas. I plan on attending both: a liturgical feast as our fast concludes. It's a day of enchantment if done properly. Which brings me to my main topic.

I've noticed that this blog, for fairly obvious reasons, does not attract Catholic progs; or so I conclude from the fact that none comment here. But I am surprised to observe that some people who do comment seem to be even more conservative, in a certain sense, than I am, without being Catholic trads. Whether Orthodox or Catholic, they are bothered by what they take to be the fact that orthodox Catholicism today, while swerving "neither to the left nor to the right," is not nearly...well, orthopractic enough. That defect is thought to be expressed chiefly in two ways: the enormous intellectual effort devoted to the hermeneutic of continuity and a drab, deracinated liturgy that shows why the effort is almost beside the point. One commenter, "Jack," even says that what we've got is "liturgical docetism." I see what he means. What such critics want is the return of enchantment, of embodied mystery, in the Church's collective life. I sympathize with that. But there's an unavoidable limit to the usefulness of what they want.

In an essay much acclaimed by the sort of people I have in mind, Daniel Mitsui of The Lion and the Cardinal concluded:

The Church has suffered immeasurably from Protestantization and from historical-critical modernism. A rediscovery of a more ancient and less literal piety, informed by sanctoral legend, miracle story, and apocrypha may be the best antidote to these trends. This does not necessitate a vain credulity that considers them literally, or that assigns them undue authority; the dangers of that can be seen now in the charismatic movement and the dubious cults of apparition. Nor does it discount healthy criticism; certain of the church fathers were themselves critical of apocrypha and the manifestation of legend in the popular piety of their time. But the Christian East has managed to be both strongly legendary and strongly patristic without contradiction. This sort of traditionalism has been lacking in the Christian West for centuries. If anything, its rediscovery will help the Catholic to see beyond the arguments between Catholicism and Protestantism, and to inhabit an older and larger world. It will help him to see the profound allegory and sublime anagogy in the wisdom of our inheritance from the saints, both simple and wise, naturally expressed in pious tradition.

I have no quarrel with the sentiments expressed therein. I agree that the gradual elimination of nearly all non-scriptural references in the liturgy, the ending of veneration of saints whose existence and exploits cannot be historically verified, and the weakening of biblical piety by the wide dissemination of the results of the Higher Criticism, has weakened Catholic piety. (In that vein The Pertinacious Papist, Dr. Phil Blosser, offers a pointed Christmas reflection that includes C.S. Lewis' classic remarks on modern biblical criticism.) But the Roman liturgy has never been as "packed" as the Eastern with the sort of thing Mitsui wants, and it would be untraditional to insist that it should be. What's more, even on Mitsui's own showing, we can't quite go back to pre-Tridentine piety.

Suppose we did see, both within and outside the walls of Catholic churches, a renewed suffusion of "sanctoral legend, miracle story, and apocrypha." I grant they would be useful as catechetical devices for adults and as ways of enchanting children with the Faith. If they once again became staples of piety in those ways, I would not mind in the least. But things wouldn't and shouldn't go further than that.

Mitsui himself explains why. He doesn't want what often comes with such things, and did in the Middle Ages: "
a vain credulity" and a lack of "healthy criticism." OK. So if we are to avoid those things while also avoiding "liturgical docetism," what are we going to recommend? Apparently, something very much like the piety embodied in the liturgy of the "Christian East," which "has managed to be both strongly legendary and strongly patristic without contradiction." And how is contradiction avoided? Presumably, by not believing that "sanctoral legends" are literally true, or that all "miracle stories" happened as related, or that everything in "apocryphal" books, such as the Protoevangelium of James, is equally worthy of belief. But if we're not going to believe those things, then how, exactly, do we robe the hermeneutic of continuity in flesh by reviving them—in the liturgy or otherwise? Other than providing fresh ammo for skeptics and scoffers, all that could be accomplished by re-introducing them in some fashion is what I said: the expansion of catechetical devices and, for those willing to suspend disbelief, the enchantment of the children within us.

Bring it on if you will. But don't let's pretend that their relative absence today in Catholic piety renders the hermeneutic of continuity "docetist," or that their appeal would be less a matter of taste than the sorts of liturgical variations we see even now. If we did the liturgy as the Pope wants it done, the trimmings could serve their modest purposes in other spheres of Church life.
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