A poll conducted by The New York Times in the middle of the preceding decade discovered that more than seventy percent of self-identified Catholics deny the doctrine of transubstantiation, the miracle by which the sacramental bread and wine are substantially transformed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. This might point to a widespread doctrinal ignorance among the faithful, but such anecdotes also illustrate an unsettling trend within the Church. Modernity’s preoccupation with the contemporary has eroded belief.
Many Catholics might still have faith in Christ and his teachings even as they deem the Mass and the saving grace of its sacraments to be superfluous, an anachronistic part of our Catholic heritage. Those who fall into this trap are likely well-intentioned, attempting to cleanse the Church of the irrelevant and uninteresting in a world with rapidly changing tastes and manners.
The erroneous syllogism follows thusly: since this is the 21st century, we should think, act, and worship like a 21st century person. Such reasoning, however, undermines the fundamental nature of Christianity, which is timeless—since it is eternal—and should be practiced as such. Os Guinness, a Protestant thinker, articulated this well in his short book, Prophetic Untimeliness.1 The more a faith tries to be “relevant,” the less relevant it will become and at the expense of its faith. When the shift towards a distinctly contemporary Catholicism beckons a disbelief in the efficacy of the Eucharist — the life-force for Catholics — we must realize that this is not a trivial concern.
The erosion of orthodoxy and true faith among American Catholics undoubtedly poses a complex problem, bereft of any definitive explanation, although the secular and materialistic values ascendant in today’s society certainly aggravate it. But equally, if not more disturbing than the allure of heterodoxy among modish “cafeteria” Catholics, is a widespread lack of refuge in Catholic communities for the embattled orthodox. The spiritual program one finds in many parish groups and lay organizations, obsessively oriented around individual preferences and notorious for informality, provides little antidote to a world engulfed by selfishness and faithlessness.
In theory, at least, faithful Catholics should be very well able to avoid a spiritual crisis. The Church rests on a solid foundation of a two-thousand-year-old tradition, buttressed by the inspired Word of Scripture and the testimony of the Saints. The courage and constancy of the Martyrs, during the early days of the Church and up to the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth-century, strengthen our resolve by their example. We have the solace of a religious tradition received via an uninterrupted succession from Christ Himself and firmly ensconced on the rock of Peter.
Furthermore, the universality of the Catholic Church connects us both spiritually and symbolically with this storied and rich tradition. All Catholics take heed of Rome and acknowledge the Pope, the successor of St. Peter and the Vicar of Jesus Christ, as the supreme earthly governor of the Church. We all recite the same prayers, celebrate the same important feasts, and confess the same truths. We are members of a community formed in time but one which yet transcends time. The Catholic Church, traditional and transcendent, offers much-needed sanctuary from the vicissitudes of the modern, decaying age.
Yet many of the outreach and pastoral organizations in parishes throughout the country choose to shrink from rather than embrace the Church’s holy tradition, in vain attempts to conform to the spirit of the modern age. Traditions, so some arguments go, are by their nature exclusive and authoritarian; they isolate the individual, merely prescribing him a list of rules and failing to satisfy his own particular spiritual needs. Also, many are quick to add, formerly “marginalized” demographics — usually signifying women and non-westerners — may feel uncomfortable with the patriarchal and hierarchal institutional structure of the Church. In aspiring to “meet people where they are,” contemporary Catholic spiritual movements are too eager to shed the traditions in which our faith has been forever anchored.
The wealth of alternative spiritual resources within Catholic communities have contributed to a very personalized and individualistic understanding of religion within many Church groups. An undue emphasis on individual preferences and the attendant decline or de-emphasis in formal religious exercises does not bode well for a community intimately intertwined with such a long and authoritative tradition. Unfortunately, one can even see these individualistic elements manifest themselves in innovative liturgical arrangements. In the place of traditional chants and hymns, many parishes have installed musical programs reflective of pop music; in too many a church, the elegant and reverent bellow of the organ remains silent while the strains of electric guitars, keyboards, and drums reverberate through the apse. While attending Easter Vigil Mass at my parish at home, I even had the distinct displeasure of listening to the choir attempt a folksy tune accompanied by the bongo drums as I returned from Communion. How could one be expected to pray seriously — to contemplate the sacrament — amid that racket which could easily be confused with music from the radio? Faddish taste has replaced the traditional sacred music in many American parishes, often replacing reverence with entertainment, a holy mystery with the commonplace. And if you do not think such matters are important, look to the Catholic unbelief in the reality of Christ in Communion. The quest for timeliness and relevance, to evoke Guinness, has created an informality that has seeped from the style of our liturgical music into our trust in the truth of the liturgy.
We would do well to remember Josef Pieper’s dramatic point concerning divine worship:
I do not go to church to hear someone talk or listen to a sermon; I go to church because something happens there. . . . In my opinion the only thing that matters is what the Church itself, the kyriaké or sacred community which “belongs to the Lord,” has believed and thought and said about this subject down through the centuries. And from its very inception the Church has said that the core of religious worship is in fact an event, i.e., something indeed “happens.”
If we stop trying to make things “happen” by our own power — by trying to conform our practices, musical and otherwise, to the casual contemporary taste—then we might
be able to realize what really happens at Mass. Those seventy-plus percent of Catholics from the New York Times poll could see the celebration of a divine reality in the Eucharist. They could see the exhilarating mystery in the liturgical rites. And they would be closer to Christ.
The spiritual lethargy currently plaguing American Catholicism in this age of encroaching secularism can in part be allayed by returning wholeheartedly to the traditions of the Church. Catholics would do well to seek solace in the safety and security of traditional forms of worship and prayer. Pray the Rosary. Contemplate the awesome mystery of the paschal sacrifice in reverent silence. Our pilgrimage on earth is not always a smooth path, whose trajectory we are allowed to plot ourselves, and should not expect our spiritual obligations to cater to our most banal and petty tastes, say for rock-and-roll over Gregorian chant. The traditional religious ritual of the Catholic Church allows us to more fully comprehend our place in the great hierarchy of the cosmos, a universe we should not expect to revolve around ourselves.