Maureen Mullarkey is a painter who writes on art and culture. Her essays have appeared in various publications, among them: The Nation, Crisis, Commonweal, Hudson Review, Arts, The New Criterion, First Things, The Weekly Standard, and The Magazine Antiques. She was a columnist for The New York Sun.
A man’s being a poisoner is nothing against his prose.
Every embarrassment is not a scandal. Egg on the face washes off. Scandal, by contrast, does not. It cuts to the core. A Church scandal poisons trust in those we look to for guidance through the thicket of our own caprices. And it negates those teachings and practices that exist to purify our own desires.
That in mind, I turn to this flurry of recent emails clamoring about the impending gay rites between the organist at St. Agnes in midtown Manhattan and his partner. Yes, that is awkward. A public relations pickle to be sure. But in itself, this news is askance of the real issue. The heart of scandal beats elsewhere.
Caravaggio. Musicians (c. 1595). Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC
A newly appointed parish organist Christopher Prestia is marrying his boyfriend in an Episcopal church out of town. But for Facebook, it could be a discreet event. No Catholic priest is officiating; no scandal applies on that score. Besides, an organist’s being gay is nothing against his musicianship.
That said, what was Prestia thinking by leaving notice of his wedding up on the same public Facebook page as the announcement of his position (“officially the musician-in-chief at St. Agnes Parish, New York City”) with a Catholic parish? He knows the Church’s position on homosexual behavior in general, and on gay marriage in particular. Public broadcast on Facebook was as provocative as it was self-indulgent. A self-described “adult convert”, the man had to know it would give scandal—a quaint old phrase—to the institution that employs him.
Prestia jettisoned Charles Kingsley's “fig leaves of decent reticence” for what amounts to a gratuitous taunt destined to strike at the parishioners he plays for. The move suggests confidence that the trumpet blare would not jeopardize his job. There is logic to the assumption. A signal to abandon reserve was implicit in Cardinal Dolan’s decision to officiate at this year’s St. Patrick’s Day parade—the first in which participants were permitted to march under the banner of sexual preference. That nod capitulated to identity politics and relinquished all sense of trespass. It sent a coded message: The Church's tutelage is a dissolving form.
Once the title of a Menninger Clinic book for three-year olds, Look at Me! Look at Me! has become a rallying cry for adults. In some respects, St. Agnes' organist was justified in expecting his exhibitionism to be greeting with an indulgent smile.
Joseph Goupy. I Am Myself Alone, a caricature of Handel (1754). Photo: Eileen Tweedy.
Count today’s trouble at St. Agnes as the latest ripple to billow from the archdiocese’s deliberate plunge into murky waters. It swells with an overt challenge that the pastor chooses—so far—not to notice. That raises the question: What kind of pastor wants on board an injudicious pup who sticks a finger in the eye of those paying for his gig?
Supposedly, Fr. Myles Murphy knew nothing of Prestia’s life or wedding plans when he hired him at the beginning of July. But Steve Skojec, at One Peter Five, reports that Prestia mentioned his partner (“my gay fiance”) on his Facebook page back in October, 2014. Maybe Murphy does not read Facebook. Nevertheless, he is up to speed by now.
The Church can survive sinners in the choir loft. After all, there are plenty of us downstairs in the pews. What it cannot survive is the gradual seepage of credibility from its own witness and the things that sustain it. The Church has nothing to fear from conscientious dissent based on reasoned argument. It has everything to fear from the slow drip of subversion. Dissolution follows the complicity— however unmeant—of clergy too complacent or too cowed to fight for what the Church holds as normative.
Andreas Feininger. Graffiti (late 20th C). Museum of the City of New York.
On a different note, a reader who identifies himself as M.T. claims to have come into possession of an alarming communiqué intercepted from a long-standing demonic mail route. The sender believes the letter has bearing on what has been discussed recently on this weblog. I take no position on the accuracy of M.T.'s claim. I simply offer it to you. You will come to your own conclusions. Herewith:
My dear Wormwood,
That dreadful Mystery! We must eliminate any sense of it wherever it is found so that our subjects come to believe that their faith is a perfectly ordinary affair; so much so that they stop that blasted practice of attending mass (or at least pay it no more mind than their grocery list). You see, without a sense of Mystery, “going to church” becomes just that — another thing to do, and with all the things to do nowadays, why keep doing it at all?
This is why it so pleases me that you have been able to get into the ear of that certain Father on Park Avenue who finds himself quite unexpectedly with a fearsome arsenal at his disposal. You have been brilliant in this regard, whispering to him of pride and vanity — all things that these Catholics are already predisposed to associate with great works of art. It was finely done, appealing to his desire to appeal to the common man. Yes, yes. The common man, most of all, should be protected from coming into contact with any sense of Mystery within the walls of a church. Because they are the least likely to find Mystery anywhere else and the most likely to fall away from the vile nourishment of The Enemy when that nourishment feels like nothing more than a banal routine. There are television shows to watch, after all. Keep at it, my dear nephew.
I suggest also that you try turning his mind to the poor — there is nothing more likely to provoke an aversion to art among the socially-minded than to suggest how many mouths such art could feed (you would do well to recall how our division finally won the soul of a certain Judas Iscariot). Yes, yes. Feeding mouths, not souls. You must keep his attention properly focused. You could have those horrid icons boxed-up and put in storage in no time at all! We must quietly disarm the Enemy at every opportunity.
Your affectionate uncle
Note: The blurb for this posting which appeared in First Things' broadcast email to subscribers was written by an editorial assistant who misread the posting. Mr. Prestia's announcement appeared on his own Facebook page, not on the parish's.
I foresee churches with their Jesuit bureaucrats open daily from 9-5, closed on weekends.
Jesuits are blameless here but the point stands. The debacle at Our Saviour is a symptom of bureaucratic conditions more critical than any clash of taste in church décor. Umbrage over “the integrity of the art” is a red herring. If that were the essential factor, this would be a minor local foofaraw. But it is not minor; and the breach of trust on display extends beyond locale to the temper of our clerical bureaucracy itself.
Gustave Doré. Illustration for Gargantua by Rabelais. (19 C.)
At its simplest level, the stripping of the icons is a case study in pastoral stupidity. One pastor’s distaste for his predecessor’s design decisions is no basis to eliminate elements that contributed to revival of a once-failing parish. No sensible steward destroys the heart of the renascence with which he has been entrusted. Those icons were sign and symbol of that very rebirth craved by the New Evangelization.
This disaster cannot be neatly shoehorned into the confines of rivalry between traditionalists and modernizers. Fr. Rutler introduced a Latin Mass into the parish schedule, but he himself presided at the Novus Ordo. And he never used his prerogatives to move the free-standing altar back to its original position against the east wall of the sanctuary. Ideology rears its ugly head largely in the fact that the two parishes to which Fr. Rutler was reassigned—pastor of one, administrator of the other—were slated for closure within a year of his arrival.
Nothing explains Fr. Robbins’ behavior, or supposed archdiocesan ignorance of it, except institutional rot. This is an instance of clerical corruption, a fiduciary and ethical betrayal. The treason of the clerisy is an assault on the integrity of those moral ideals they are pledged to preserve. It is an assault on their own calling and on our fidelity to it.
Pieter Brueghel the Elder. Pissing on the Moon (16th C). Museum Mayer van den Bergh, Antwerp.
In many respects, this havoc is a reprise of last year’s Michael Hull affair. Think back. Msgr. Hull misspent parish funds on a palatial renovation of his rectory only to go AWOL with a young intern at the newly created Sheen Center. Now married, he is a priest in the Scottish Episcopal Church. Once the darling of Cardinal Egan, Hull was sheltered behind institutional silence. No word of his canonical status appeared in letters to priests or in Catholic New York, the archdiocesan house organ. (The omission was unprecedented, according to a diocesan priest.)
One high profile crack-up might be taken as an anomalous burst of opéra bouffe. A second, more virulent one, following on its heels raises worry of a pattern. How many other pastors are playing fast and loose with parish funds for the sake of power or creature comforts?
Ambroglio Lorenzetti. Avarice, detail from Allegory of Bad Government (14th C.) Palazzo Publica, Siena.
The turmoil at Our Saviour’s is neatly summarized by an open letter circulating by a prominent layman and philanthropist. It reads in part:
Father Rutler turned a bankrupt and virtually empty church into a world-famous spiritual center, paid off the mortgage and long-standing debts, virtually rebuilt the infrastructure and exterior walls and roof, installed a magnificent new organ and many other improvements (and left well over 2 million dollars in the bank) and did much of the interior painting, gold leafing and decorating himself (he never takes a vacation) and produced a record number of candidates for the priesthood.
The author does not mention that the cost of the icons and their installation was met by two major private donations. These were gifts, not a drain on parish funds. The letter continues:
Father Robbins is on vacation in his villa in the opulent Hamptons. In less than two years, Rutler's successor, Father Robbins, has dismantled much of the interior of the church, alienated most of the parishioners, and nearly bankrupted the parish, spending vast sums on virtually reconstructing the plain but comfortable rectory (where Father Rutler happily hosted as guest Cardinals and other prelates and distinguished laypeople) - but which Father Robbins told people was a “slum” - so that the rectory is now a luxurious home for Father Robbins and his organist who also resides there.
Note the excess of two million dollars depleted in less than two years by Fr. Rutler’s successor. That kind of money does not go unnoticed by the chancery. Yet in a meeting with a representative of Archbishop Dolan earlier this week, artist Ken Woo was told that this was new news—a totally unexpected revelation—at the chancery. Woo was instructed to say nothing more about the discussion.
The chancery’s innocent ear is as believable as President Obama’s claims that he never heard about this-or-that crisis until he read it in the newspapers. Equally preposterous is the imposed gag order, redolent of the secrecy and dissembling of power politics.
Edme-Gustave Brun. God Rewards His Own (1874). Musée des Beaux Arts, Dôle, France.
By law, any capital improvement costing more than $30K has to be approved by the archdiocese. The COS rectory, gutted to its shell, rebuilt and redecorated over the course of one year, ran significantly over the discretionary limit. Either Robbins did not disclose the amounts—in which case disciplinary action is in order—or the archdiocese approved. One way or the other, this is a scandal of prodigality and, it would seem, complicity. (A blind eye is a species of collusion.)
And the live-in organist? Rumors of domestic partnership have been loud and angry enough to have reached the chancery. They were sufficiently vocal to cause Fr. Robbins to complain from the pulpit about attacks from parishioners. It is an easy bet more than one of these “attacks” were forwarded to the archdiocese. If they are unfounded slanders, the chancery should say so.
The philanthropist’s letter concludes:
. . . but the mystery is why Cardinal Dolan favors and promotes him [Robbins}. If Cardinal Dolan does not intervene to stop this literal iconoclasm, the real guilt is his. As a layman of many years, active on the boards of several charities, I am beyond being scandalized by some of the things I see in the Church and especially here in New York, whose archdiocese is shrinking as fast as the city is expanding and thriving, but I am quite bewildered to explain this.
Francesco Bartolozzi. The Alderman's Dinner (18th C). Guildhall, Southampton, NY.
tuart Chessman, on his lovely weblog at St. Hugh of Cluny, has the single most incisive commentary from an architectural/historic standpoint. [I learned Fr. Rutler is not guilty of those gingerbread Stations of the Cross. Carved versions of cut-paper silhouettes, they pre-dated his tenure. They could have gone.] Chessman’s July 22nd posting examines Fr. Robbins' frail apologia for the remodeling, and closes with this:
It is an indictment of the organization and management of the Roman Catholic Church that entirely optional and decorative projects like this are cleared based exclusively on the decision of the pastor. This, at a time when so many Catholics are losing their own parishes allegedly because of financial difficulties of the Archdiocese. . . . We know of other, very recent abuses of clerical power in this region. With such clericalism the Catholic Church is only continuing the long-term process of digging its own grave.
Digging its own grave. Just so. In his 1985 Report, then-Cardinal Ratzinger deplored a “hedonistic and cynical upper bourgeoisie.” He might have been describing a class of ecclesiastics.
Something unedifying is under way at the Church of Our Saviour, on lower Park Avenue in Manhattan. This alert from a knowledgeable source came Tuesday morning and has been circulating:
I am informed that having [been] officially appointed Pastor of COS, Father Robbins is in the process of removing the other icons and also wants to remove the large Pantocrator. The demolition is in process, and the intention is to finish it before anyone can protest. So immediate action is needed. The Cardinal must be flooded with messages, and there should be notice on as many liturgical/arts websites as possible. Any delay will be too late.
For those of you unfamiliar with the backstory:
Fr. George Rutler was pastor of Our Saviour from 2001 until he was transferred in 2013 across town to St. Michael’s, a less prominent location. In the twelve years of his service to COS, he proved himself a gracious and effective steward. He reversed the parish’s decline, eliminated its debts, enlarged and revivified the congregation. Most visibly, he renovated the church building with great sensitivity.
View of the renovated sanctuary as it stood when Fr. Rutler left Church of Our Savior.
The cornerstone of that renovation was the suite of contemporary icons that graced the sanctuary. Ken Woo’s stunning magnification of Christ Pantocrator (based on the original in St. Catherine’s, Sinai) was a technical tour de force that presided in triumph within the architecture of the sanctuary. In concert with a series of icons of individual saints on four enveloping pilasters, the Pantocrator set a tone of majesty.
And the ensemble was gorgeous. The gilding, the patterning of costumes, the hieratic gestures—the sum of this lovely assembly of panels conspired in drawing attention toward the high altar. Far from diminishing the altar, the splendor of the surround ennobled it. Woo’s icons were not conceived to function as separate decorative entities. They were meant to function together as an atmospheric unit. And they did, until Fr. Rutler was reassigned and Fr. Robert Robbins took over.
The new pastor began his tenure by making liturgical changes and, to the dismay of parishoners, by removing fourteen of the most prominent icons. In a gesture mimicking the iconoclasm of sixteenth century Reformers, the denuded pillars were white washed. On Tuesday we learned that the remaining ones, included the magnificent Pantocrator, are slated for eviction. Why? Is Fr. Robbins acting on his own initiative or at the behest of higher-ups? Certainly, a pastor has both his druthers and his prerogatives. But the severity—the totality—of this de-adornment gives off an odor of reprisal. It is hard not to sense malice at work. Whose? To what end?
The foremost pilasters denuded.
Last August, Fr. John Zuhlsdorf—our online Fr. Z—articulated what Catholics familiar with the situation were thinking: that this was not a renovation at all but an ideological move. Fr. Z wrote:
What’s going on there? Is this “Get Rutler!” time in NYC? Deface Rutler’s work at Our Saviour? Slate St. Michael’s and Holy Innocents for closure a year after he arrives? By next year he’ll be pastor of a cardboard box over a grate near the Hudson.
Suddenly, the erasure is worsening. A company named Renovato Studios has been contracted to remove the remaining icons, including—according to reliable voices—the great Pantocrator. This latest move follows on the heels of Rutler’s essay “The Pope’s Off the Cuff Remarks in Turin” appearing in Crisis on June 30th. The essay took issue with Pope Francis’ impromptu aim at the weapons industry in what read as a naïve replay of Dwight Eisenhower’s famous 1961 warning against the military-industrial complex. Rutler wrote:
The Pope’s comments did not engage the issue with the perspicacity and experience of Ike who seldom spoke off the cuff. Inasmuch as papal guards carry Glocks and Sig 552’s, the earnest Pope knows that weapons are necessary. The problem is that he called those who manufacture them un-Christian.
Ken Woo. St. Chrysostom. Among the first panels to be removed.
Having written a book on the moral reasoning behind military actions in the Second World War, Rutler knows considerably more about the issue of arms than does Francis. In a deft marriage of courtesy and rebuttal, he underscored Francis’ deficit:
As for the hypocrisy of those who invest in such manufactures, that would seem to be an unqualified criticism of a large number of investors in a complicated and interlocking world of investments. For example, the Pietro Beretta Company, which is the largest arms manufacturer in the world, is now controlled by the Beretta Holding S.p.A. It is also probably the oldest. The Republic of Venice, in consort with Pope St. Pius V contracted the company to provide the arquebuses that helped to defeat the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto. One was used to shoot Ali Pasha. During his reign (1823-1829), the della Genga pope Leo XII, enlarged the papal artillery and, a skilled marksman himself, often relaxed by shooting birds in his gardens.
The essay puts paid to simplistic indictments of Allied actions based on superficial understanding. It deserves to be read in full. Read it for its intelligence; and also for the illustration it offers of why a priest like Fr. Rutler might run afoul of establishment progressives. Was his unapologetic conservatism a thorn in the side of the archdiocese and, possibly, beyond? Impossible to say. But this gratuitous vandalism at Our Savior is not a small thing.
Here, with the white washed columns after the first round of removals.
And it is not about Ken Woo or the imagined “moral rights” of an artist, however sympathetic. Woo was paid for his work just as Richard Serra was paid for the popularly rejected Tilted Arc. Neither is it an issue of the award-winning status of the icons. Aesthetics is a secondary matter here. No, above all else, this is about what appears—on its face—to be a calculated effort to delete evidence of a particular priest’s presence in a place that he served and transformed.
Fr. Rutler drew congregants to a house of worship that was a model of prayerful decorum, an oasis in a debased liturgical climate. That, in addition to conservative sensibilities and candor in expressing them, can raise hackles in some quarters.
Ken Woo. Christ Pantocrator in situ behind the altar.
Our Saviour’s website devotes a page to the church’s tabernacle and the sanctuary marble (“quarried in Pakistan near the Vale of Kashmir, a focal point of the war in which our nation is now engaged”). But nothing is said about major elements added during Fr. Rutler’s term. You have to enter Ken Woo’s name into the site’s search function to find any reference to the commission. No image of the interior appears on site. A small reproduction of the original Sinai panel floats free on the page, but there is no image of the artist's enlarged version installed in the sanctuary.
Physical evidence of Fr. Rutler’s tenure is being erased in the fashion of Soviet-style historiography. This is not remodeling. This is hierarchical politics on display. Nicholas Frankovich, writing for First Things, named it seven months ago in his essay “This is What Clericalism Looks Like.” The most instructive commentary to date on the lamentable destruction, it closed with this:
All sensible Catholics join the pope in deploring clericalism, but definitions of it are necessarily broad. We also need descriptions of it. Its faces are many. This is one of them.
The hope, now, is simply to save the Pantocrator. Interested readers can reach the chancery by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone: 212.371.1011 Ext 2935. Letters marked “Personal and Confidential” can be sent to His Eminence Cardinal Timothy Dolan, 1011 First Avenue, New York 10022.
I counted indulgences when I was a child. Quite likely, some of you did the same, though maybe not as fastidiously as I did. Every First Friday and First Saturday, there I was indemnifying myself against the wages of sin. My insurance agent was St. Helena’s Church on Olmstead Avenue alongside the IRT Pelham Line; my carrier, Catholic devotions in all their gaudy splendor.
Heinrich Voghherr. A Preacher Reading Out an Indulgence (16th C).
Sparkhill Dominicans assured me His eye was on the sparrow. But that was no guarantee it was on a latchkey kid in the Bronx. Lest the Creator of all things visible and invisible be preoccupied elsewhere, I kept a ledger for tallying up my earned assets. (Just in case He lost track and needed a reminder.) It was one of those black-and-white marbled Mead composition books that had been a staple of classroom technology in the analog days.
Like any childhood game, my variant of double-entry bookkeeping was played in earnest. Saturday afternoon confession took care of the debit side. My little ledger memorialized the credit side. Pages were ruled in half to make two columns. I pored over them both: one for partial indulgences, the other—marked in the margin with a star—for plenaries. It added up to an enviable reckoning.
Five years for every Apostles Creed; three years for each Act of Faith, Hope, Love and Contrition. (That last was a favorite back then. Still is.) The Angelus, though, defeated me. What was a ten-year rebate against eternity? That was not sufficient motivation for the job of reciting it three times a day. At dawn, I was still asleep; at noon, in school; eventide was time for Black Beauty or Heidi. So you can see how impossible it would have been to try for a plenary indulgence by saying the Angelus every day for a whole month.
Albrecht Durer. The Lamb of God from the Apocalypse suite (1508).
The Memorare came more easily. It brought only a three year indulgence for hit-or-miss recitations but promised a full reprieve if recited daily for a month. That I could do. Quite a few gold stars racked up next to entries for the Memorare. All the approved litanies were another good investment: seven years for the Holy Name of Jesus, seven for the Blessed Virgin Mary; five for St. Joseph. (Only five? There began my sympathy for the underdog.)
Lent and Advent were a time to luxuriate in a riot of penances. The Forty Hours Devotion was a carousel that spun from St. Helena’s to St. Raymond’s, on to St. Mary Star of the Sea, and back again. Trekking across neighborhoods from one church to the next, a brass ring in view, absorbed the loneliness of a solitary child.
Indulgences accumulated. Years of remission turned into centuries. If my ledger was telling the truth, my collected IOUs stretched into the eons. It was a cache that no one person could ever empty. No glutton, I began signing them over in secret to other people, bequeathing them where they might be in demand.
Grandpa Powey was old. He would be needing them soon. Grandpa Harry was not Catholic so he probably really required some. Did anyone bother about Crazy Aunt Mary who kept a kitchen knife in her bedroom? No doubt she could use an indulgence or two. On it went. My philanthropy was as exhilarating as delinquency.
Inexorable and merciless as the tides, the sins of childhood slowly receded. The sins of an adult advanced. The Cross lengthened with them; it grew larger and blistering hot. Incandescent, it scorched my ledger to ash. The soul’s green eyeshades fell away. I stopped counting.
It has been years since I remembered my childish account book. It came to mind yesterday during the Missa Cantata of a newly ordained young priest. After Mass, the priest invited the congregation to come forward and kneel for his first blessing. It is a gracious ritual. There is something in the laying on of hands that reaches to the marrow, touches the blood.
Fr. Sean Connolly bestowing his first blessing to the Latin Mass congregation in Sleepy Hollow, NY.
The blessing ends with the congregant kissing the priest’s consecrated fingers. On queue to the altar, a shadow fell; something in me balked. I could not do it. I stepped suddenly off the line. Might I accept his blessing without kissing his hands? For reasons too many and too dense to explain in this context, the kiss would have been dishonest—a fraud enacted in display of a piety that I neither felt nor assented to.
I brought my question to a second priest standing in choir. Yes, it was permissible to kneel for the blessing yet omit the kiss. No slight to the priest was involved. But, he reminded, an indulgence attaches to the kiss. That would be forfeited without it.
Adult sins have consequences felt in the lives of other people. It is rash, unfitting, to presume to erase consequence to ourselves when we cannot, in charity, undo the realities of cause and effect. We will be judged in relationship to Christ, to Him Whom we meet—fail to meet or wound—in others. Those failures stand and others' wounds still bleed, no matter the total of indulgences.
This was a forfeiture I owed.
The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.
—Daniel J. Boorstin
“Religions die.” Those two words open Philip Jenkins’ The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia—and How It Died. It is a stark beginning. We prefer to keep our eyes on the West’s relics of a not-so-distant Christendom and avoid the sweep of Christian history filled with reminders of the transience of human affairs.
Jenkins’ book turns attention back to the catastrophes and extinctions that brought ruin to ancient Christian communities. For those who believe, as Christians do, that God speaks through history, these annihilations are tidings. But of what? Remembrance is the axis of discernment:
Losing the ancient churches is one thing, but losing their memory and experience so utterly is a disaster scarcely less damaging. To break the silence [of God], we need to recover those memories, to restore that history.
Mazarine Master. Sassanian King Shapur II Persecuting Christians (15th C.) Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris.
On the face of it, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber’s appointment to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences is incomprehensible. We can only make sense of it if we ask ourselves an unwelcome question: Is the Academy risking—if not engaged in—guerilla war against the pro-life movement?
The sole scientist participating in the unveiling of Laudato Si, Schellnhuber is a member of the Club of Rome, an international clique of Malthusian alarmists. (Obama’s advisor John Holdren is a former member.) Acolyte of Gaia and a darling of George Soros, Schellnhuber is a zealous promoter of the theory of man-made climate change and advocate of population control.
He has lobbied for an Earth Constitution to replace national constitutions and the UN Charter. He seeks creation of a Global Council, and establishment of a Planetary Court. This last would be a transnational legal body with enforcement powers on environmental and population issues. Everywhere. [Not without cause does Czech physicist Lubos Motl label him “a doomsday crackpot who calls himself a physicist.”] In short, as I wrote for The Federalist, Schellnhuber is the Vatican’s advance man for bureaucratic tyranny on a global scale. His appointment is as contradictory as it is ominous. The “global regulatory frameworks” desired by Laudato Si will crush orthodoxy without scruple when it suits.
Notwithstanding the encyclical’s affirmation of the Church’s traditional position on abortion, elevation of Schellnhuber saps—subverts—the pro-life movement. Vatican confederacy with highly placed population control sages and bureaucrats negates the very thing that Laudato Si affirms. Joel Kotkin, writing on The Daily Beast, put it well:
It is dubious that the Church's credibility will be well served by a neo-feudal alliance dominated by those who abhor the Church's other core values.
Add Vatican courtship of Canadian journalist Naomi Klein and we are through the looking glass. Klein is a pro-abortion, anti-corporate, anti-free enterprise agitator with no expertise in science or economics. Her credential is the ideological bias that brought her to Liberty Plaza in 2011 to address her soul mates in Occupy Wall Street. “I love you,” she shouted to the crowd. “Let’s treat this beautiful movement as if it is the most important thing in the world.” Now she is a Vatican-ordained evangelist for our evolving green Church and its vision of a this-time-sustainable Eden.
Among several cherished mottoes at my house is a venerable bit of street wisdom: “Lie down with dirty dogs, you get up with fleas.” Usually attributed to Ben Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanack, it is also believed, in some corners, to date back to Seneca who might have said it this way, if he said it at all: Qui cum canibus concumbunt cum pulicibus surgent. Pick the English vernacular or the Latin. Either way, the dictum is eternally applicable to machine politics, whether in Vatican City or Brooklyn Borough Hall.
Green ambition aligns the Vatican with such eco-thinkers as Jonathan Porritt, environmental advisor to Prince Charles. Porritt recommends that Britain work to halve its population as a means of emissions reduction. Having more than one child—if that—is irresponsible. Also among the Vatican's new friends will be Peter Kareiva, head scientist for the Nature Conservatory. He caps Francis' caution against breeding like rabbits with an insistence that the best way for those in the First World to reduce emissions is not to have children at all.
Whether the smoke of Satan or the ghost of Deng Xiaoping, something dark hovers.
Cassius Marcellus Coolidge. Gambling Dogs (early 1900's). Private Collection.
Catholics are neither accustomed nor disposed to resisting their pope. We incline toward a code of obeisance that permits criticism aimed in all directions but one. It is permissible to fire at advisors, courtiers, and apologists—the attendant lot of ambitious retainers that buffer the crowned head from challenge. But toward the sovereign himself, politesse is mandatory. And comfortable.
For some, this is a practical matter. Careers are at stake within the Church bureaucracy, its corresponding network of lay satellites, and the Catholic commentariat. Nevertheless, the greater part of reluctance to demur, let alone oppose papal behavior and utterance, is respect for office. But if a man strays from the contours of his office—bends magisterial capacity to purposes for which it is not intended—what then is tact?
How do we distinguish between the office and the office holder? Is it wise to try? Might effort at distinction be little more than a shield against the inadmissible? William Butler Yeats offered an answer posed as another question. “Among School Children” closes with the words: How can we know the dancer from the dance?
Hans Holbein the Younger. Danse Macabre (16th C).
When did the online weather report become so rococo and alarmist? It was not until the ornate graphics reached critical mass that I started paying attention to the content’s mission creep. Garish and over-elaborate, Weather.com has swollen into the Gospel of Extreme Weather.
The weekend began with Extreme Weather Events Will Be ‘Beyond Comprehension' in Decades. READ THE STORY. Saturday’s forecast for my zip code huddled in the lower left corner of a blazing header that screamed: 20% of Bangladesh Could Be Lost to the Sea. READ MORE. Sunday brought this: Retired Brigadier General Stephen Cheney: 70% of the Worlds’ Militaries Are Preparing for Climate Change. READ MORE. (Islamist brigades and Soldiers of the Caliphate must be gleeful. But I promise not to digress.)
Anonymous etching. Storm on Lake Como, Italy (19th C.). Photo: Album/Art Resource NY
All I want when I dial up the Weather Channel is to find out if I need to take an umbrella with me. Will I need a sweater later, or will a long-sleeved shirt be enough? Should I wear into the city my old Arche heels, the pair I save for rain, or can I risk the new ones? Or—worst case—am I going to regret not having bought those cute Kate Spade rubber boots?
Weather.com has outgrown all that. Old time weathercasting has buckled to tabloid climatology. Useful daily data survives largely as a come-on for a more thrilling agenda: Apocalypse watch. You are just looking for the day’s temperature? Armageddon presses its nose to your screen and bangs on the glass with prophecies of ecological end times.
Tex Antoine (d. 1983) with Uncle Wethbee, a staple of NYC weathercasting for nearly three decades.
It is 72° in Weekawken as I write this but that is beside the point. Hal Harvey, CEO of Energy Innovation, has the real news: Every Decade We Wait is a Thousand Years of Pain. On the same web page, a smiling woman in a sunny yellow blouse chirps about the onset of Near Record Wind Shear. Day before yesterday typhoon Chan Han was a Fourth of July threat. (It’s Strengthening & We’re Worried About its Path). Now we learn that the unprecedented wind shear reduced Chan Han to a mere tropical storm. But eco-porn addicts need not lose hope. As wind shear ebbs, Chan Han will Strengthen Into a Typhoon again on Sunday or Monday.
Alarms roll in, inexorable as the tide. Here come storm, flood, and earthquake alerts; the multi-state threats; the all-time heat records here, all-time lows there. More Records Broken. Do not forget the hurricanes. They are rare in July but, these days, anything goes. Besides, shark attacks are on the rise. And you know what that means. So stay on your toes: Are You Ready For the Next Storm?
Anonymous. Waterspout (c. 1910). Photo: Adoc-photo.
By the time you’ve scrolled all way down, you need a little relief. Something to celebrate, maybe. Here is an item for you: Upcoming Anniversary of the Devastating 2005 Season. Then there is Heat Drives Man to Song. You can raise a glass to that.
How did naturally occurring weather events and virtually imperceptible, century-scale temperature changes become both so personal and so tied to global political interests? Why has weathercasting become a revival tent for the next Great Awakening?
Francesco Casanova, Storm Scene (18th C.). Musee des Beaux-Arts, Rennes, FR.
Meteorologist Anthony Watts can explain. He is the amperage behind Watts Up With That? a prominent website in the climate debate. Retired after twenty five years in TV broadcasting, Watts continues to work in the field of weather technology, skilled in the measurement, processing, and presentation of weather data. No, he is not an accredited climate scientist. But as he reminds his audience, neither is Al Gore.
You can read his C.V. on his website. What matters here is his clear, technologically informed description of the theater business that weather reportage has become. His essay “Extreme Weather and Global Warming,” appears in Climate Change: The Facts, published this year by the Institute of Public Affairs, Melbourne.
He provides NASA data to illustrate the flaws in global warming claims that derive from the smallest of variances from a baseline period (1950-80) that was the coolest period of global temperature in the twentieth century. For nearly two decades now, there has been a hiatus in temperature rise altogether. Thus, terminology changed from global warming to climate change, then to global climate disruption. a term invented whole cloth by John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Popular belief that extreme weather is happening more frequently, despite data to the contrary, is media-induced. Live broadcasting is invested in emotional appeal, not the dry matter of factual content. Sensationalism sells and is easy to come by:
Weather appears more extreme today, not because it is, but because we hear about it nearly instantly, and such reports saturate the electronic media within minutes of occurrence. . . .
The speed of weather tracking and the communications technology curve aids in our “common perception” of extreme weather events, but the reality [of them] is actually quite different. While we may see more extreme weather on a daily, monthly, and yearly basis, that happens only because there are millions more eyes, ears, cameras and networks than ever before.
Extreme weather was always there, but up until recently in human history there was no way to record it and share it quickly . . . within minutes of occurrence.
A 2012 Nature editorial disclaims evidence of a causal relation between between extreme weather and climate:
Better models are needed before exceptional events can be reliably linked to global warming . . . . To make this emerging science of ‘climate attribution’ fit to inform legal and societal decisions will require enormous research effort.
In other words, no matter what you call it—global warming, climate change, or climate disruption—it is, in Watts’ summation, “a dead issue with true science at the moment, and the value of such wild claims trying to link extreme weather with climate exists only as a recruitment tool for climate activists and zealots.”
Watts’ essay makes no mention of the latest encyclical. Still, it raises the specter of a Pontifical Academy of Sciences preferring TV-grade para-science to its mission to honor pure science and ensure its freedom.
Fanaticism in matters of sacred art is an attitude that can lead to a decadence more sterile than the one we are now endeavoring to overcome.
Maurice Lavanoux, “The Authentic Tradition and Art,,” Liturgical Arts (1954)
This past Saturday I caught a late afternoon train into the city for the last night of One Faith, East and West, a collection of contemporary sacred art at NYU’s Catholic Center. This was the final stop after exhibition in Beijing and Moscow. The show closed with a talk by painter Clement Fuchs, “Hermeneutics of Continuity in Sacred Art.”
It was an inauspicious title. A bludgeoning word, hermeneutics works best on those who view art through a verbal filter and/or think they are responding to art when they are simply reacting to subject matter. Nevertheless, the problems of sacred art today matter to me. It was worth heading out into steady rain if only to spare myself wondering later if I had missed something by staying home.
Sr. Eliseea Papacioc, St. Nicholas.
Flyers listed the start of the event—lecture and reception—at 6 PM. I mistook that to mean the talk began at six, wine and cheese afterward. Since my train only runs once an hour on weekends, I could arrive either way too soon or a half hour late. I took the earlier train.
My timing proved as unlucky as the weather. Customary protocol—lecture first, drinks later—had been reversed. Fuchs’ talk would not begin until 7 PM. And the work on the walls was a letdown. With few exceptions, the show confirmed my growing assent to the Orthodox distinction between sacred art and mere secular art with religious subject matter. It illustrated, too, the distance between piety and genius.
While several names were familiar, only two artists merited a second look: Dony McManus, an Irish artist and something of an entrepreneur in sacred art circles; and Sr. Eliseea Papacioc, an Orthodox Romanian nun and iconographer living in rural Romania.
Dony McManus. Crucifixion (from Hendrik Terbrugghen, 1625).
McManus contributed an exquisite drawing of the corpus from Hendrik Terbrugghen’s Crucifixion with Virgin and St. John. I regret having only a jpg. of McManus’ drawing. You simply cannot see on screen the delicacy of his hand or fully grasp the intelligence and vitality of his translation into line of a tonal painting. (We are so accustomed to online images that it is easy to forget the physicality of an artwork, particularly that of a drawing.)
However fine, McManus’ drawing remains a copy of part of a painting from the Dutch Golden Age. It is a beautiful rendition of its model but what distinguishes it as sacred art? Neither subject matter nor an artist’s piety qualify art as sacred. Technique and touch applied to the rendering of a religious theme does not differ from what would be used to depict any moodily lit, anatomically correct figure in space. In formal terms, the drawing is an exercise in picture making (as is the Caravaggesque painting it borrows from.)
Hendrik Terbrugghen, Crucifixion with Virgin and St. John (c.1625). ©Metropolitan Museum, NYC.
That detracts not a jot from the loveliness of the artist’s hand, but it departs from the call to transcendent reality that is the purpose of sacred art, and which informs the heart of the icon tradition. Abstract qualities necessary to suggest religious mystery evaporate in verisimilitude. In the end, much of what Western tradition after the Romanesque and early fourteenth century takes as sacred art is really history painting, albeit of a religiously significant subject.
Here, Sr. Eliseea alone eclipses pious sentiment and rises to compelling sacred art. She is not a copyist, not merely replicating older work. Rather, she inhabits the icon tradition, infusing historic patterns with a quality of concentration, precision, and refinement distinctly her own. Think of it in musical terms. The process of writing an icon bears analogy to the way a modern musician might interpret an historic and venerable score. Yo Yo Ma, Arthur Russell, and Mstislav Rostropovic can each play Bach’s Cello Suites; yet each will sound different from the other when they do.
Sr. Eliseea Papacioc, St. Nicholas (detail).
It is said that to write an icon is like standing in prayer. Looking at her work, you trust the truth of Vladislav Andreyev’s words:
What we are trying to do in our icon writing, both on the board and in our souls, is . . . to grasp or become in touch in some way with the Logos.
No emotion is depicted on the icon board, only hieroglyphic formulas—principles—of depiction. There is no effort to convey the psychological reality esteemed in the Western portrait tradition. All emphasis in is on leading the viewer in continuous motion toward an ascendant reality outside time and history. Sr. Eliseea’s incantatory calligraphic inscriptions advance the icon’s aspiration toward the sacred—the Logos—in its iconological aspect. This is a symbolic realm, conformed to theology but not identical to it.
Sr. Eliseea Papacioc. St. Paul.
Guiding the selections for One Faith, East and West is the assumption that faith is primary in matters of artistic achievement in sacred art. Were that true, this would have been more than the unexceptional exhibit that it is. True, in Sr. Eliseea’s icons faith and talent are in communion with each other. But her gifts are distinct from her faith. Were she not in religious life, not an iconographer, whatever she turned her attention to would be extraordinary. She has an eye for the subtleties of surface quality and a remarkable hand.
Rouault once said that, with respect to sacred art, “one must begin by loving painting.” (Something quite different from loving the image of oneself as a Christian painter.) In commenting on the great periods of religious art in the past, Chagall remarked “. . . there were good and bad artists even then. The difference did not lie in their piety but in their painterly ability.”
Overall, there was not enough of interest to keep me hanging about the gallery for at least another hour. I ducked out into a downpour to an overpriced Italian restaurant close by. Pappardelle con ragù degli Appennini is, undeniably, a thing of beauty. And Montepulciano is good for wet feet.
I never made the lecture. It was not necessary. There was nothing talk could add to the testimony on the walls.
Every First Things reader should spend a few minutes with Matt Ridley's “The Climate Wars' Damage to Science,” in the current issue of Quadrant, Australia's leading monthly.
Neither the pope nor the encyclical are mentioned. Nevertheless, Ridley's article is supremely relevant to a full grasp of what Laudato Si signifies. His article is entirely concerned with the corruption of science by political agendas and the funding dependent on them. It is a clear-eyed examination of the intellectual bankruptcy of the species of ideologues who have the pope's ear, and on whose voice the moral credibility of the Church has been gambled.
Sure, we [science writers] occasionally take a swipe at pseudoscience—homeopathy, astrology, claims that genetically modified food causes cancer, and so on. But the great thing about science is that it’s self-correcting. The good drives out the bad, because experiments get replicated and hypotheses put to the test. So a really bad idea cannot survive long in science.
Or so I used to think. Now, thanks largely to climate science, I have changed my mind. It turns out bad ideas can persist in science for decades, and surrounded by myrmidons of furious defenders they can turn into intolerant dogmas.
Tofim Lysenko, Soviet agronomist (c. 1930s). Photo: HIP
Bad ideas—i.e. Lysenkoism—that garner political support monopolize the debate:
This is precisely what has happened with the climate debate and it is at risk of damaging the whole reputation of science. The “bad idea” in this case is not that climate changes, nor that human beings influence climate change; but that the impending change is sufficiently dangerous to require urgent policy responses. In the 1970s, when global temperatures were cooling, some scientists could not resist the lure of press attention by arguing that a new ice age was imminent. Others called this nonsense and the World Meteorological Organisation rightly refused to endorse the alarm. That’s science working as it should. In the 1980s, as temperatures began to rise again, some of the same scientists dusted off the greenhouse effect and began to argue that runaway warming was now likely.
At first, the science establishment reacted sceptically and a diversity of views was aired. It’s hard to recall now just how much you were allowed to question the claims in those days.
As recently as ten years ago it was still possible to warn against over-heating debate:
Since then, however, inch by inch, the huge green pressure groups have grown fat on a diet of constant but ever-changing alarm about the future. That these alarms—over population growth, pesticides, rain forests, acid rain, ozone holes, sperm counts, genetically modified crops—have often proved wildly exaggerated does not matter: the organisations that did the most exaggeration trousered the most money. In the case of climate, the alarm is always in the distant future, so can never be debunked.
These huge green multinationals, with budgets in the hundreds of millions of dollars, have now systematically infiltrated science, as well as industry and media, with the result that many high-profile climate scientists and the journalists who cover them have become one-sided cheerleaders for alarm, while a hit squad of increasingly vicious bloggers polices the debate to ensure that anybody who steps out of line is punished. They insist on stamping out all mention of the heresy that climate change might not be lethally dangerous.
Today’s climate science, as Ian Plimer points out in his chapter in The Facts, is based on a “pre-ordained conclusion, huge bodies of evidence are ignored and analytical procedures are treated as evidence”. [Climate Change: The Facts, published by Australia's Institute of Public Affairs] Funds are not available to investigate alternative theories. Those who express even the mildest doubts about dangerous climate change are ostracised, accused of being in the pay of fossil-fuel interests or starved of funds; those who take money from green pressure groups and make wildly exaggerated statements are showered with rewards and treated by the media as neutral.
The bulk of Ridley's essay is a menacing catalogue of scandals in which bad scientific practice is rewarded, evidence is ignored or funding threatened for research that raises questions about the pre-ordained conclusions of the climate change imams. Reasoned dissent is greeted as blasphemy.
Climate is a chaotic system with multiple influences. As Ridley notes, human behavior is only one of many. This makes predictions extremely hazardous. The very nature of science places scientists among the least reliable forecasters. But caution is an impediment to the gravy train climate science is driving. Careers and reputations are at stake. And the traditional rigors of scientific method inhibit the intellectual posturings of self-selected, fashionable elites.
Pride is in the saddle. The Vatican, anxious to be ranked among European public intellectuals, has aligned itself with the degradation of science and the silencing of debate.
Note: Matt Ridley is a prize-winning British journalist and member of the House of Lords. He earned degrees in zoology from Eton and Oxford. You can read Ridley's essay in its entirety online here.
Snared by the hot button issues of the day, we serve ourselves best by standing back a bit and reading, or rereading, previous texts that anchor the mind in the longue durée. Or at least release us from the pressures of the moment. Philip Larkin’s quip that sex began in 1963 applies to a great many things, including those myths and inclinations driving the ecclesial culture that produced Laudato Si. Herewith, a small bouquet for remembrance.
Comet of 1680. From a pamphlet by Simon Bornmeister (1681). Nurenberg.
Begin with Charles MacKay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, first published in 1841 and still in print. He introduces his chronicle of reigning hysterias and credulities, this way:
Popular delusions began so early, spread so widely, and have lasted so long, that instead of two or three volumes, fifty would scarcely suffice to detail their history. The present may be considered more of a miscellany of delusions than a history—a chapter only in the great and awful book of human folly which yet remains to be written.
Christianity reveals nothing about politics, economics, or atmospheric physics. Christopher Dawson, writing in 1934, stated words that still resonate. Keep them in mind as you read calls for the creation of global authorities, especially ones with enforcement powers on environmental matters:
[Christians] should remember that it is not the business of the Church to do the same things as the state—to build a Kingdom like the other Kingdoms of men, only better; nor to create a regime of earthly peace and justice. The Church exists to be the light of the world . . . .
That light derives from the promise of the Resurrection, a glory and a gift offered us as individuals, not as a class.
Jesuit scholar James V. Schall, in Religion Wealth and Poverty (1990) takes note of a reality that social justice warriors tend to forget. It is that the main source of poverty in the world is ideological:
The major causes of hunger are almost always related to the quality of the governmental regime and its theory about how mankind is to be organized where there is (or is not) hunger. Ideology, in fact, the main cause of hunger, along with . . . certain attitudes to work, reward, and order. The relation of religion and moral practice to wealth producing is much closer than re are normally willing to admit. Certain doctrines and beliefs will guarantee continuing poverty.
Theodore Schultz’s Nobel Prize lecture (1980) on “The Economics of Being Poor” clarifies Fr. Schall’s point:
Future historians will no doubt be puzzled by the extent to which economic incentives were impaired during recent decades. The dominant intellectual view is antagonistic to agricultural incentive, and the prevailing economic policies deprecate the function of producer incentives. For lack of incentives the unrealized economic potential in many low-income countries is large. . . . Interventions by governments are currently the major cause of the lack of optimum economic incentives.
Laudato Si arrives as a stalking horse for the upcoming United Nations Climate Conference in Paris and a promoter of its ideological bent. So listen again to Fr. Schall:
The Church has a great stake in not presenting itself as just another economic or political lobby. Unfortunately, it sometimes conceives its main purpose to concoct alternative policies, to be a sort of ecclesiastical “shadow cabinet,” waiting to explain how the world could be better run if it just voted for these practical policies.
Patrick Moore, co-founder of Greenpeace, explains his having left the organization because of its increasing abandonment—thirty years ago!—of scientific objectivity in favor of political agendas:
By around the mid-1980s, when I left Greenpeace, the public had accepted most of the reasonable things we had been fighting for: stop the bomb, save the whales, stop toxic waste dumping into the earth, water, and air. Some, like myself, realized the job of creating mass awareness of the importance of the environment had been accomplished and it was time to move on from confrontation to sustainable development, seeking solutions. But others seemed bent on lifelong confrontation, “up against the man” “smash capitalism” . . . .
In order to remain confrontational as society adopted all the reasonable demands, it was necessary for these anti-establishment lifers to adopt ever more extreme positions, eventually abandoning science and logic altogether in zero-tolerance policies.
That brings us back to Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds:
During the great plague of London, in 1665, the people listened with similar avidity to the predictions of quacks and fanatics. Defoe says, that at that time the people were more addicted to prophecies and astronomical conjurations, dreams, and old wives' tales than ever they were before or since. Almanacs, and their predictions, frightened them terribly. Even the year before the plague broke out, they were greatly alarmed by the comet which then appeared, and anticipated that famine, pestilence, or fire would follow. Enthusiasts, while yet the disease had made but little progress, ran about the streets, predicting that in a few days London would be destroyed.
A still more singular instance of the faith in predictions occurred in London in the year 1524. The city swarmed at that time with fortune-tellers and astrologers, who were consulted daily by people of every class in society on the secrets of futurity. As early as the month of June 1523, several of them concurred in predicting that, on the 1st day of February 1524, the waters of the Thames would swell to such a height as to overflow the whole city of London, and wash away ten thousand houses. The prophecy met implicit belief. It was reiterated with the utmost confidence month after month, until so much alarm was excited that many families packed up their goods, and removed into Kent and Essex. . . .
By the middle of January, at least twenty thousand persons had quitted the doomed city, leaving nothing but the bare walls of their homes to be swept away by the impending floods.
The flood never happened. But we are a credulous species. From comets to climate, we are forever trembling on the verge of Apocalypse. We must hurry to forestall it. And, in our anxiety, we risk great harm to ourselves and our neighbors.
I came away from last week’s Sacra Liturgia conference in New York on something of a high. It was exhilarating to see a large audience drawn to Mass in the Extraordinary Form. I had half expected the majority to be older, primarily the generation born into the traditional Latin Mass. But no. Here was an auditorium filled with seminarians and younger priests, joined by musicians, scholars, and lay catechists, united in belief that the beauty of the ancient liturgy—the splendid otherness of it—plays its own role in evangelization.
Raymond Cardinal Burke spoke in support of that conviction. In the Q and A after his formal address, he told an engaging story about his experience in Barcelona with members of the youth movement Juventutem. Finding the source of their own sanctification in the ancient liturgy, this quixotic little group arranged a Solemn Pontifical Mass for the street people—addicts, homeless, runaways—that they served.
What could possibly come of such an impractical, romantic gesture? Surely it would be wasted on its intended beneficiaries. To the cardinal’s surprise and delight, the improbable congregants were exalted by the experience. All who attended were deeply moved and grateful. Much kissing and embracing followed.
Was there any lasting influence to the surge of emotion the Mass generated? Were even one or two converted from the downward spiral that brought them to this pass? The cardinal did not say. A skeptic could argue that a neglected, needy congregation such as this would likely have responded the same way to a performance of Tosca or any musical event staged in their behalf.
Here on my desk is something for our skeptic.
Not long ago I plucked John Cowper Powys’ The Meaning of Culture (1929) from the town dump for no better reason than curiosity about a writer who once drew praise from Emma Goldman. Powy (1872-1963) was a little known British novelist and itinerant lecturer whose name survives by reflection from other names— e.g. Bertrand Russell, Will Durant—he met along the way.
It turned out to be a happy find. Powy, too sophisticated to remain a believer, was no stranger to Catholicism. His wife, a Catholic, refused him a divorce when he fell in love with another woman. In the main, this clergyman’s son held himself superior to dogmas of any stripe—religious, political or marital, the same.
Powy's commentary on the “complicated poetic casuistry of Catholicism” is tinged with nostalgia, almost regret. He writes as an outsider to Rome’s precepts, but—not unlike Claudel at Christmas Vespers—is susceptible to the solemn beauty of the liturgy:
The Church of Roma in her proud, complicated, organic growth—like a great rooted tree whose branches indiscriminately shelter apes, squirrels, crows, owls and doves—has offered to the wayfarer of life-awareness a no less rich, dark depository of occult experience.
Do not let that word occult nettle you. Magic works. Besides, the word is quite serviceable for a skeptic’s recognition that in some ineffable way the Latin liturgy and its “thrilling music”—Gregorian chant and classical polyphony, not today’s sacro-pop—yield something “far more spiritual than any aesthetic opium.” Powy describes that something as “a certain intellectual temper, or habitual artistry of the mind, an antiquum organum, polished smooth by long handling.”
Unconsenting to the Church’s “ancient poetic dogmas,” he acknowledges the “power of a sorcery” carried by its liturgy. He continues:
Like some magic table, upon which our bread and wine is served and our candles lit, the Church bears up the weight of man’s quotidian destiny; bears it, and has borne it so long that it seems a kind of violence to the good breeding of the soul to ask the uncomfortable question, how can so human a piece of furniture carry the burden of the universe?
Nine decades ago Powy asked the same question latent in the substrate of this year’s Sacra Liturgia conference:
Here indeed, in this difficult question of the relation between religion and culture, we find ourselves compelled to face what really is the most crucial point of our present-day human situation: the problem, namely, as to how far it is possible to retain for individual lives, in the midst of the breaking up of the old traditions, those over-tones and under-tones of character which the long discipline of the centuries, under the scaffolding of a unified faith, has so laboriously nourished.
The liturgy that drew deep imaginative sympathy from an unbeliever was the very one discarded and disdained in the decades following Vatican II. It is not unfair to say that Powy, in his own way and despite vaunted skepticism, participated more fully in the liturgy than glad-handing congregants at the dispirited, self-conscious “new” Mass that has already grown gray.
The dignity of the liturgy has suffered a great wound. It will take more than a generation to close it.