Classical Catholicism

In the wake of recent reflections about the Roman Catholic traditionalist world, I am brought to offer a few reflections from my point of view as it developed over the years since I left the Institute of Christ the King and the RC Church.

As I pointed out in my recent posting Fraud or Illusion? and the comments following it, the problem with which the traditionalist groups (including the Society of St Pius X) are fraught is one of ecclesiology. It is a problem that goes back to the time of the Avignon schism and the Council of Constance that proclaimed that the Episcopal authority of the Church was vested in the Episcopate, the Ecumenical Council, and that the Pope was subject to this authority. A recurring contention of the traditionalists, especially in regard to Paul VI in the 1970’s, was that Tradition was a higher principle than arbitrary Papal authority to change the liturgical rites or replace them with new creations or express ideas or teachings close to heresy. This was the greatest intuition of men like Archbishop Lefebvre, Cardinal Siri and a larger number of isolated parish priests who soldiered on with great resilience and courage. This is the positive side of that movement. The SSPX disappointed many as its idealism gave way to institutionalism and pragmatism, around 1983 when the “hard line” was sacrificed in favour of dialogue with Rome, John Paul II and a seemingly more conciliant atmosphere than the intransigent Paul VI. The big problem is that most of these groups remained mired in papalist ecclesiology, to which they clung in the name of orthodoxy.

In my own experience in the 1980’s, I had remained deeply rooted in my native Anglicanism, which I would have had trouble defining if one asked me at the time. Even today, there are many definitions of Anglicanism from a “traditionalist” point of view. One such is Two heads are better than one by Fr Robert Hart, written in 2010. The posting is followed by scores of comments, and I find this conversation very rich. The dividing lines of Continuing Anglicanism are not the same as Roman Catholic traditionalism in the 1970’s and 80’s and up to the present day.

Fr Hart tries to define Anglicanism as being “both Catholic and Protestant”, at the same time an incarnate and sacramental reality coupled with an Evangelical message, a greater emphasis on preaching than in the pre-Reformation Church. We do indeed come unstuck when we try to define and worry about what other people think or even try to sell our way to them. Very often, Anglicanism is defined by the kind of liturgy we celebrate, what books we use, our doctrinal references or “adhesion” to the sixteenth-century Reformation.

I have always been struck by the parallels and analogies between the two movements, since I have personal experience of both. Roman Catholicism lives its dichotomy between Papal authority (infallibility) and Tradition, and we Anglicans between an attempt at revival of the pre-Reformation Tradition and the Reformation. Human minds are often guided by the same lines of continuity and self-identification.

In favour of the Reformation, we would see the end of Gnadenkapitalismus, the notion of considering God like one’s banker. The account book would show the balance of sins and merits, the latter being obtained by precise religious practices. Perhaps this notion existed in places in the early sixteenth century, as can be found now with some people in their inherited beliefs. The Reformers attacked popular religion and sought to replace what they saw as Pelagianism by their interpretation of St Augustine’s teaching on faith and grace, salvation and predestination.

One problem I find with the Reformers is that they were formed in the same mould as the Catholic theologians of the time. They were all based on interpretations of St Augustine, from Thomas Aquinas to Luther and Calvin. To shock the reader with the notion of the absurd, I think of Pope Paul VI trying to be “with it” yet mired in the same old mentality of late nineteenth-century papal anti-liberalism, and traditionalists trying to find the essence of what they believed to be true, but yet also victims of the same ideology. I have not been satisfied with restorations of Reformation “pristine purity” (which never existed in church history) any more than their modern counterparts or traditionalism founded on Counter-Reformation religious orders of missionary priests.

At the same time, a sense of self-identity is both relative and necessary for us as human beings. Personally, I am less concerned about Classical Anglicanism than with Classical Catholicism, for want of a better term. The word classical has a less polemical overtone than traditional. One big problem with human language is the use of euphemism – implying things we are not saying and not respecting the etymological meaning of words. Definitions can be made all the more confusing and polemical, so this is something we have to watch for all the time.

I have been fascinated by the Use of Sarum for many years. As a liturgical rite, it did not fall from heaven any more than any other way of celebrating the Eucharist and the Hours of Prayer. It is imperfect and defies the rational in many respects. There always seem to be “accretions”. One example is the repeated Easter Sunday Mass that overshadows the “Sunday masses during the week”. The Prayer Book, the English Missal and the Anglican Missal (the latter two missals based on the Roman Missal of 1570) have “corrected” this anomaly in the Sarum Use. That is just an example. Corrections can and should be made when the reason is obvious, but that is a long way from scrapping the entire rite and replacing it with something new as happened in the 1960’s in the RC Church. In the Anglican Communion, there was also great enthusiasm for liturgical reform, but from an opposite perspective. The Prayer Book was too arid and needed to be fleshed out, expanded and supplemented with other material from eastern and western sources.

In my liturgical studies, I discovered the notion of “archaeologism”, wanting to return to “pristine” sources, a romantic view of the early Church of the persecution era or shortly after the Peace of Constantine. Return to sources would often prove to be a euphemism for creating new material to suit modern political and theological trends. This was made made possible by the reversal of Prosper of Aquitaine’s Lex orandi principle in an encyclical of Pius XII in the 1940’s. The question is whether the liturgy is a place of theology, a source of teaching, or whether the liturgy follows changing or “developing” theological trends. This is the centre of the argument about the liturgy. It is often contended that the latter principle originated with Pius XII’s Mediator Dei and before him with the Reformers. That could prove to be too convenient an explanation, but constant modification and tampering of the liturgy can only lead to its destruction and the cultural uprooting of Christians.

This is a problem we can find in common between certain forms of Catholicism (Jansenism, rationalism as in the eighteenth century and the modern liturgical movement) and Protestantism.

Something else was tried in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the grafting of Benedictine monasticism on parish life to give new value to the liturgy and a spiritual outlook to contribute to a renewal from the dry rationalism of the “classical” pre-French Revolution era. There we see the role of Dom Guéranger in France up to Dom Odo Casel in Germany, the introduction of a “soft gnosticism” into the Church. This can be compared to the use of the monastic Typicon by Orthodox parishes and lay faithful. This had tended to be my sympathy over the years. If there is any point to the Church, its business is our spiritual life under the Gospel of Christ.

Monastic liturgy and church aesthetics tend to be “cleaner” and more sober than nineteenth-century parish Catholicism with all the “dripping” devotions and paraphernalia. This movement coincides with cultural developments in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries like the Pre-Raphaelites and Arts & Crafts, something to which I have been very sensitive in my own time slot. Let everything be more based on liturgy, contemplative prayer and beauty rather than chatter and repeated practices designed for the “simple”. There may be limits in this “Romantic” approach, but the glove seems to fit me.

In my studies of church history and “heretical” movements, I really come to the conclusion that there was no “pristine pure” expression of Christianity. It was all a gaggle of conflicting and sometimes mutually tolerant sects and little groups. Any objective examination of the history of scriptural texts reveals the late composition of the Gospels and other books of the New Testament. For one book forming the canon of the New Testament, there are ten more from Nag Hammadi or other nearby ancient burial places in Egypt. The “pristine” church sought by the Protestants and bleary-eyed folk in the 1960’s never existed. That is my one objection both to “modern” Roman Catholicism and the Protestant Reformation. There is no one Christianity for all. Christianity becomes incarnate in local cultures like Judaism and Paganism of various kinds, whether in Europe or other parts of the world. This is why Christianity does better in Africa than here, because we have lost our pagan roots.

So, talk of getting rid of “medieval accretions” and “restoring pristine purity” is no more than idle claptrap. Neither Anglicanism nor Classical Catholicism can be based on that idea.

Our problem is getting the genie (or even the gin or jinn!) back into the bottle, which is impossible. Logically, Christianity should be discarded as something not viable. That would be a shame, since it is a religious tradition that has done more to promote the highest of humanity and principles of virtue more than either Judaism or Islam among the monotheistic religions. As things are now, with capitalism and atheism both teetering on the edge, the only substitute for Christianity is the kind of hard-line Islam that now threatens the world. We would not only say good bye to Christianity but a whole humanist culture that has enlightened us since the late fifteenth century. Just think of Saudi Arabia, Syria and Irak under Daesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan under the Taliban and some countries of Africa and how cheap life is! Perhaps here there is an emerging basis on which the Christian way could become grafted. I fail to identify it, but it must be there. Perhaps some of my readers might have an idea or two.

If we go from there and hang onto our monastic and “Romantic” archetypes, maybe those could provide a basis of Classical Catholicism for small groups of lay people and priests. The internet is a great help, since it assembles like-minded people who live too far apart to be able to attend liturgies and engage in face to face discussion and sharing. As an Anglican, I feel more called to the cause of Classical Catholicism than trying to reconstruct seventeenth-century Anglicanism of the Restoration era.

Whatever we aim at, it will be an artificial construct, since the cultural underpinning of Catholicism in the west is gone. We no longer have vital “critical mass” or consensus. I can only make suggestions as other people make other suggestions. Loads of different brands can be chosen at the supermarket, and each customer is happy (is there is no quality problem with a product). This is the risk we take – that Christianity becomes a consumer product and loses its meaning totally. Islam is laughing and guffawing in our face!

One thing about the RC traditionalists like we Continuing Anglicans: we had to learn to live in the catacombs and become recusants. No one is (yet) threatening us with death, but we have no money and precious few buildings or trained clergy. Some of us fell off the back of the “mainstream church” lorry, and are valued members of our communities. I am reserved about our future, because we don’t have resources or critical mass. That is something for which Archbishop Lefebvre’s pragmatic mind was concerned for all his rhetoric and ruthless decisions. I have a feeling that we in the ACC are over the worst and have potential for surviving our own deaths. It would be nice to be able to leave my “stuff” to my Church in my will!

We have to be realistic as well as give priority to the spiritual side. We are far beyond Reformation polemics even if we are native Anglicans or Roman Catholics with our gut reactions and ways of reacting. We need to study church history and a more realistic view of patristics and fundamental theology (theodicy, tradition/authority and faith/reason) and seek the best of what will give us perennity.

I have no one formula for all. Several things come from the Anglicanism some of us have known. Typically comprehensiveness and tolerance of diversity. Another is the quality of discussion, using words properly and ascertaining that analogies and allegories are understood – that two or more people are discussing the same thing and not talking past each other. This can be the gift of a good upbringing and a university education. These are things learned in the Debating Societies of our schools.

After having read things that made my heart sink to my feet, I can only try to build and look to a brighter future – even if we get our throats slit for it…

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7 Responses to Classical Catholicism

  1. J.D. says:

    Very illuminating and thoughtful Father! For once I’ll just keep my mouth closed and ponder what you say here. It resonates with me somehow..,

  2. Timothy Graham says:

    Fr Anthony, this is somewhat off topic, forgive me – but I noticed that you write that Sarum “is imperfect and defies the rational in many respects. There always seem to be “accretions”. One example is the repeated Easter Sunday Mass that overshadows the “Sunday masses during the week”.
    …Also the Sarum breviary for Eastertide is very confusing… although perhaps this is simply my abject ignorance. It has very few Matins lessons for the weeks up to Whitsun, and e.g. in the Third Week after Easter there is not even any indication after Feria II as to what Psalms are to be used for the rather shortened version of Matins that one says in Eastertide. Can’t quite work it out!

  3. Timothy Graham says:

    So I see… it is rather lazy of me to ask, I just need to sit down & translate the rubrics.

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