Between Heaven and Earth

As a Protestant, before converting to Catholicism, I gazed admiringly on Catholic material culture. I kept holy cards on my dresser and icons on my walls. Little did I realize, when I entered the church—that stuff had been unceremoniously relegated to the dustbin of history.

Robert Orsi, in Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them, explains why this happened:

I went to a dinner at a friend’s place in New York. My friend had been chaplain of the Catholic Worker House in Lower Manhattan in the last years of Dorothy Day’s life, and he was widely connected in the New York Catholic community. On this particular evening he wanted me to meet an old comrade of his, a prominent liturgist who was in town to visit the Worker house around the corner. This liturgist, who I will not name (he has since died), had been deeply involved in promoting the changes in ritual, practice, church aesthetics and ecclesiology following the Second Vatican Council. It was a beautiful warm spring evening. We drank great amounts of red wine… the lively sounds of the East Village at night came through the open window.

Then the visitor who had been reminiscing about the days after the Council asked me about my work. I started to tell him about Saint Jude, about the founding of the shrine in 1929, and about the feelings that people, especially women, had toward this saint, the way they treated images and statues of him… until slowly I became aware that he was becoming very agitated, turning this way and that in his chair, splashing wine from the glass in his hand onto the tablecloth and onto his pants.

red wine

Suddenly he pushed himself back from the table and said loudly and furiously as he got to his feet something along the lines of You are trying to bring back everything we worked so hard to do away with. Then he walked out.

…in the middle years of the twentieth century amid tremendous social and religious change Catholics in the United States struggled to redefine their relationship to the sacred, which entailed a new conceptualization of their bond to the past as well—to their own immediate past, their childhoods in the church—because the past had been filled with sacred presences no longer tolerable or even recognizable in the changed circumstances of lives directed now to new and unfamiliar horizons. Rethinking the sacred for Catholics in the 1960s meant repositioning themselves to what had gone on in relation to the sacred in their past; telling stories about the past became a medium for reimagining the holy. Father Grabowski had located the saints in the time of the “old,” “older,” and “outdated,” which was an argument both about the sacred and about the past. The past to be grown up and moved away from came to be represented by many things—by the dull rhythms (so it was said) of memorized prayer, for example, or by the steady clicking of rosary beads though people’s fingers during mass, or by the invisibility of nuns’ bodies—

vintage nun 2

but above all it came to be represented by the saints and the Blessed Mother, and denying and forgetting the saints, putting them out of memory and out of history, became the way of closing off the past from the present. In this way the saints performed one last service for modern Catholic in the United States: they became the pivots of the constitution and authorization of a new “past”.

Dipesh Chakrabarty says that moderns basically take two attitudes toward the past. One, which he calls “historicism,” is “the idea…that once one knows the causal structures that operate in history, one may also gain a certain mastery of them.” Historical inquiry frees the present from the dead hand of the past because it takes as given that the past is “genuinely dead.” The historicist approach to the past may be enacted confidently, certain of the present’s liberation from what had gone before, or it may be ambivalent and anxious. Chakrabarty associates this latter mood with Marxism. Marx had written that “the tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.” The danger as Marx saw it was that the new world which was to come into being out of the rupture with the past necessarily had to be constructed with tools of the past and so “could end up looking like a return of the dead” (in Chakrabarty’s words). Nevertheless, in both historicist attitudes is the assumption that historical knowledge frees the present from the past…

…But the impulse to hold the present and the past together in relationship was not the dominant one in the culture and became even weaker as the decade of the 1960s proceeded. More common was derision and contempt for “yesterday,” a sense of its uselessness. What had come before was spiritually and psychologically “sick,” Daniel Berrigan, S.J., declared in a 1962 article on church art—this language of the past as pathological…. Not even the Middle Ages, once the greatest of eras in Catholic imagination and a source of cultural and religious pride, escaped reevaluation. The past was inauthentic. It was characterized by secrecy, dishonesty, and alienation. There was a widespread sense among American Catholics that the past—that their past—had done little to prepare them for their particular present. The dominant temporal metaphor of the time—one that resonates deeply with the language and history of western modernity—was that Catholics needed to mature and come of age (although the terrible irony here is that by denying the past, Catholics deprived themselves of anything to grow up from).

“The mood of so many Catholic writers of the past two years, “ the great historian of American Catholicism Thomas T. McAvoy, C.S.C., wrote in Ave Maria in 1965, “has been a kind of fear to look back as if opening the window of the church to let in fresh air meant closing the door on the past.” Catholics were prepared to celebrate those aspects of their common past that authorized their credential as moderns—the U.S. Catholic endorsement of American Democracy for instance, or the role of the church in Europe and Ireland. But the past that would not be engaged was the past of that the generation coming of age in the 1960s had most intently lived, that had formed them and given shape and structure to their deepest senses of self, namely the past of devotionalism—that array of practices, objects, liquids, images, ceremonies, and gestures


by which Catholics had engaged the presence of God, the Mother of God, and the saints, in the spaces of their everyday lives. Catholics looked back in the 1960s and 1970s, across what they though of as a tremendous temporal distance, at religious practices that had in fact existed in their own experience, that still characterized the faith of many contemporary Catholics and that were receiving new spiritual vigor…

The American Catholic devotional past had to be rendered utterly over and done with. But “the past…is a position,” philosopher of history Michel-Rolph Trouillot writes, meaning that the pastness of any particular past is not given and natural but achieved, secured, authorized, and maintained.The pastness of the past has to be constructed and reconstructed, over and over, often in the face of the dreadful (to those who fear it) and unavoidable evidence of the past’s enduring presence. Fundamental to the work of rendering the past past among 1960s Catholics were the saints: toppled from their niches

broken statue

in the churches that had been built with countless small donations to them, the saints and the devotional practices associated with them, the varied practices of sacred presence were repositioned in the firebreak between the present and the past. The strangeness guaranteed the otherness of the past.

To Chakrabarty’s typology of modern attitudes toward pasts construed as premodern we need to add another, a renunciatory impulse toward one’s own and one’s community’s religious history, a deliberate work of sealing off, in memory and history, by denial, contempt, exclusion, and silence, ways of being in relation to the sacred that are no longer acceptable within the normative construction of the modern. This peculiar impulse of renunciation does not belong to Catholics alone; it is widely shared among moderns and indeed is a constitutive feature of modernity as this is normatively defined… The historical project of the renouncing of a particular religious past is fundamental to the religious history of modernity and to the practice of modern historiography.

If the point of such renunciation was to build a firewall against the past it not only failed, it ensured that the past would remain a compelling object of desire among Catholics and ex-Catholics across the religious and political spectrum, who return today obsessively to the world of preConciliar Catholicism in fiction, film memoirs, plays, therapy modalities (the recovering Catholics movement) in the angry newsletters of Catholic separatists (those so dismayed by the changes in practice and theology in the church that they separated from it in independent congregations), in the bitter or jejune satires of liberal Catholics and ex-Catholics, and in the endless rounds of shared Catholic school memories. The members of no other religious community in the United States returns so compulsively to their past… Catholics in the United States today insistently reenact the past so that they can literally enter and move around inside it. Late Nite Catechism has become one site of the wider psychodrama of memory in contemporary American Catholicism…

The culture that tried to build so high a barrier against the past wound up creating an obsessive culture of memory. But because contemporary Catholic remembering and forgetting has its origins in the rupture between the present and the past—it is marked by this trauma. The not-so-long ago appears utterly sacred and magisterial among those who “remember” with longing and sorrow, but bizarre and ridiculous and cruel among those who “remember” with relief and contempt. In the early 1960s, amid vast social change, liberals told stories about the “past” that heightened its otherness, and conservatives told stories about the “past” that emphasized the beauty and holiness of it, and the two memory discourses first became parodies of each other and then “memories.” Memory in other words, was put in the service of forgetting. Memory became not the practice of engaging the past but another medium for fending it off and keeping it distant. Catholic “remembering” since the 1960s has assumed the task of denying the past for some, and for others of celebrating and canonizing the past, especially of the devotional past, was lost. Catholic memory served to ensure that adults did not have to access what was lost and what was gained—religiously, social, and culturally—in the era of revolutionary change of the 1960s and 1970s. Lamenting and celebrating, they could forget.…

In the emerging post-Conciliar culture of the 1970s and 1980s, the saints and the Virgin Mary were to be reimagined in the languages of friendship, morality, or mythology deemphasizing what the reformers considered an inappropriate culture of excess and emotionalism and of the miraculous. Above all the reformers insisted that popular devotions, if they were to remain a feature of the post-conciliar American catholic Church at all, but surrounded by words:

one way of understanding the transition of the early 1960s, which continues to shape the intellectual climate of contemporary studies of American Catholicism, is as a shift from an ethos of presence and sacred intimacy toward a culture bounded by, and even obsessed with, words. Words were not absent from preConciliar culture, of course, with all its prayer card, novena booklets and pious ejaculations. The difference is that the words of the old devotionalism were efficacious not simply in themselves but in relation to specific cultic practices and disciplines such as vows, perpetual novenas, and devotion to particular saints. Devotional words mattered in circumstances of intimacy between heaven and earth. The new words belong to a professionalized class of liturgical specialists whose development and expectations reflected the higher educational levels attained by middle class Catholics in this era. The words derived their legitimacy from a strict and precise connection to church authority


and not from their association with a beloved saint. Devotions were necessarily now be accompanied by some sort of discursive practice—explanatory sermons, clerical reflections on the meanings of particular expressions of piety, reading of Scripture of or some other devotional text—as if hedging those practices about with the written and spoken word their improvisatory and disruptive potential could be controlled or at least diminished.

More insight from Mr. Orsi: Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them

Dipesh Chakarbarty’s Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference

On Beauty

A reader asked me a good question about thoughts shared at my post “Why am I so Vexed?

“Is this any more complicated than saying that you personally prefer more traditional architecture to modern architecture? You do realize that there are people who disagree? I like the first church better than the second. I find it more spiritual. On what grounds do you say that I am wrong?”

We can, at least to some extent, define beauty objectively, just as we can define and know truth. There are guidelines that can help us form conclusions about what is beautiful and what is not. Of course there is also the validity of personal taste. The Stanford Library of Philosophy offers this helpful analysis in the entry “Beauty”:

However, if beauty is entirely subjective—that is, if anything that anyone holds to be or experiences as beautiful is beautiful —then it seems that the word has no meaning, or that we are not communicating anything when we call something beautiful except perhaps an approving personal attitude. In addition, though different persons can of course differ in particular judgments, it is also obvious that our judgments coincide to a remarkable extent: it would be odd or perverse for any person to deny that a perfect rose or a dramatic sunset was beautiful. And it is possible actually to disagree and argue about whether something is beautiful, or to try to show someone that something is beautiful, or learn from someone else why it is.

On the other hand, it seems senseless to say that beauty has no connection to subjective response or that it is entirely objective. That would seem to entail, for example, that a world with no perceivers could be beautiful or ugly, or perhaps that beauty could be detected by scientific instruments. Even if it could be, beauty would seem to be connected to subjective response, and though we may argue about whether something is beautiful, the idea that one’s experiences of beauty might be disqualified as simply inaccurate or false might arouse puzzlement as well as hostility. We often regard other people’s taste, even when it differs from our own, as provisionally entitled to some respect, as we may not, for example, in cases of moral, political, or factual opinions. All plausible accounts of beauty connect it to a pleasurable or profound or loving response, even if they do not locate beauty purely in the eye of the beholder.

The rest is here:

Aristotle’s definition of beauty also serves as my guide: beautiful objects have order and symmetry.

An ugly Catholic church can offer a small bit of consolation as there is usually a crucifix located on the central axis. Even if I am denied other forms of aesthetic pleasure, I can still find an anchor for my contemplation and cast my gaze upon the corpus and the cross. Though the lozenge shaped backboard, in this particular instance, is an odd distraction. And what are those pieces of cloth draped on the altar, err, I mean table: bath towels?

Saint Robert Bellarmine Church, Blue Springs, MO

Saint Robert Bellarmine Church, Blue Springs, MO

I respond favorably to objects that are symmetrical because they echo the human form. This is why I feel at ease and comforted by the presence of columns. The base of a column is referred to as a pedestal, a direct allusion to the human form (“ped” is the root of foot in Latin). When I visit The Palace of the Legion in Honor in San Francisco

palace of legion of honor

I experience a rush of visceral pleasure as I pass through the colonnade—my view is obscured momentarily as I proceed by each column. In rhythmical fashion I am once again rewarded with a slightly different vantage point at the furtherance of my movement through the colonnade. My vantage point of the San Francisco Bay, the skyline of the city or the other aspects of the building is revealed depending upon my position in relation to the columns.

The rhythmically ordered columns at Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity, along with the The Palace of the Legion of Honor, also follow Aristotle’s definition that beautiful objects adhere to a plan of order and symmetry. The columns lead my gaze toward the front of the church, the classical grammar of the architectural elements connects me to two millennia of Christians who have worshipped in similar buildings.

Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity, Architect, Duncan Stroik

Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity, Architect, Duncan Stroik

Yes, there is room for folks to disagree about beauty but as I further my exploration through reading, pondering and looking, I anticipate that I will continue to find grounds in which to state objectively that some things are more beautiful than others. I have just started reading Roger Scruton’s, The Aesthetic Understanding. I plan to share my findings in future blog posts.

Can we not agree that the Aztek is an ugly car?


Can we not agree that Chase Finlay’s beauty, in addition to his accomplishment as a dancer, adds an element of transcendence to his performance in Balanchine’s Apollo?

Sentimentalized Worship

English philosopher, Roger Scruton, illuminates the deceptions of the cheap substitute of sentimentality for love in his book Modern Culture:

Sentimental feeling is easy to confuse with the real thing, for on the surface at least, they have the same object. The sentimental love of Judy and the real love of Judy are both directed towards Judy, and involve tender thoughts of which she is the subject. But this superficial similarity marks a deep difference. The real focus of my sentimental love is not Judy but me. To the sentimentalist it is not the object but the subject of emotion that is important. Real love focuses on the other: it is gladdened by his pleasure and grieved by his pain. The unreal love of the sentimentalist focuses on the self, and treats the pleasures and pains of its object only as an excuse for playing the role that most appeals to it. It may seem to grieve at the other’s sorrow, but it does not really grieve. For secretly sentimentalists welcomes the sorrow that prompts their tears. It is another excuse for the noble gesture, another occasion to contemplate the image of a great-hearted self…

Sentimentality and fantasy go hand in hand. For the object of sentimental emotion is, like a fantasy object, deprived of objective reality, made pliant to a subjective need, and roughly discarded when the going gets tough. He is, from the beginning, only an excuse for an emotion whose focus lies elsewhere, in the great drama of which the sentimentalist is the sole enduring hero. Hence the object of sentimental love is given no security, and will find himself quickly replaced in his lover’s affections when the script requires it. The sentimental love of Judy pretends to acknowledge her value; but in fact he has assigned her a price.

These insights apply not only to the sentimentalizing of persons but also to the deity. Sentimental worship is cheap and self-referential. It is more about the subject than the object; more about the worshiper than the worshipped. Some Evangelicals who revel in emotion-based, sentimentalized worship are moving toward the Emergent church which may just be a stop on the path to secularity. I experienced this in my start-up post-Evangelical/Emergent church before converting to Catholicism. Attendees still had a form of worship but they were tired of God being so uptight about how we comport our bodies. Worship was about expressing affection to The-Big-Happy-Daddy-in-the-Sky who was cool with whatever we wanted to do as long as it made us happy.

I compared this to the Catholic conception of God which acknowledges God as Other. Compare and contrast this:

To this:

Unfavorable Exchange Ratio

nun and child

Rodney Stark analyzes the inevitable decline of the postconciliar church from a sociologist’s perspective in The Churching of America: 1776-1990 Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy:

 In the early 1960s, the American Catholic Church appeared as solid as ever. During the fifteen years following World War II, the church had undergone a new period of growth. From 1916 through the 1930s, Catholic adherents had hovered between 150 and 160 per 1,000 population. But the combined effects of the baby boom and the resumption of immigration from Europe caused the Catholic market share to jump to 190 per 1,000 by 1950 and to 235.9 by 1960.

Then, in 1962, Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council, gathering all of the bishops of the church in Rome to reassess and restructure doctrine and practice.

For four years the church fathers met periodically, making decisions that resulted in many far-reaching changes. The mass was no longer to be said in Latin, but in the local language. The faithful were no longer prohibited from eating meat on Friday. Many other prohibitions on Catholic behavior were also relaxed, and many traditions were greatly deemphasized. Moreover, the council stressed a new spirit of ecumenism.

Noting that Pope John XXIII not only had called his bishops to a Vatican Council, but had at the same time appointed a Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, [Martin] Marty remarked: “ His action made John XXIII the most recognized ecumenical leader of his generation and made ecumenism a household word.” Could a really successful ecumenical age be far away?

Oddly enough, Will Herber—the Jewish spokesman who played a major role in mounting the ecumenical movement of the 1950s—warned vehemently against too much aggiornamento. Speaking before a national convention of Catholics belonging to the Newman Apostolate, Herberg criticized the many Catholic intellectuals who urged the church to “slough off its old ways and bring itself up to date by adjusting itself to the spirit of the age. I say just the opposite: in all that is important, the Church must stand firm in its witness to the truth that is eternal and unchanging; it needs no updating… If it is to remain true to its vocation, it must take its stand against the world, against the age, against the spirit of the age—because the world and the age are always, to a degree, to an important degree, in rebellion against God”.

… but we will argue that the decreasing demands in other areas were as important, and probably more so for reducing the commitment of Catholics. As Iannocone has commented, “the Catholic church has managed to arrive at the remarkable, ‘worst of both worlds’ position—discarding cherished distinctiveness in the areas of liturgy and theology, and life-style, while at the same time maintaining the very demands that its members and clergy are least willing to accept.

The distinctive sacrifices and stigmas of being Catholic were abandoned (without replacement) by the reforms of Vatican II.

Faiths that impose high costs offset them by providing high levels of reward. Hence, when people cease choosing to sacrifice we must suspect that they no longer are getting a good deal—or at least that no longer perceive the exchange as favorable…

Are the American Catholics going to go the way of the Congregationalists, Presbyterians Episcopalians and Methodists? Will they come to be just another mainline body specializing in comfortable pews, while slowly sliding downhill? Can the process somehow be reversed? We believe that in principle people can always reverse themselves and make different choices. But often they do not, and this makes it difficult to anticipate history. Nevertheless, some aspects of the future of American Catholicism seem relatively clear.

Unless the church is able to re-establish greater tension with its environment it will not be able to restore the reward needed to maintain high levels of sacrifice by the religious. It takes a vivid conception of active and potent supernatural forces to motivate people to make major sacrifices on behalf of faith, because only such active forces can plausibly deliver the great rewards on which a favorable exchange ratio rests.

Why am I so Vexed?

Dr. Peter Kwasniewski’s article, In Much Wisdom is Much Vexation, yields much insight on why I find the Novus Ordo Mass unacceptable:

The music [like the Mass] has its real existence in the performance, and one accesses it through the performance. In an odd way, the music has no real existence apart from the performance, and neither has the liturgy some objective or generic essence by which we are perfected, in abstraction from the subjective and specific experience of liturgy here and now, in this or that form. We are perfected by the thing as it actually exists and functions, not by its technical validity or licitness.

The reduction of liturgy to validity and licitness is truly one of the most subtle and pernicious reductionisms of the modern age…

What applies to the liturgy also applies to the edifice. When I am in a sterile, big-box, ugly, Catholic church, I am turned in on myself and reduced to a forlorn critic.

Saint Robert Bellarmine Church, Blue Springs, MO

Saint Robert Bellarmine Church, Blue Springs, MO

When I am in a beautiful Catholic church I can enter into a less self-conscious state; beauty brings me closer to God.

Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity - Architect: Duncan Stroik

Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity, Santa Paula, CA, Architect: Duncan Stroik

Roger Scruton on the perils of messing with liturgy in An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture:

Although the purpose of an act of worship lies beyond the moment, in the form of a promised redemption from the original sin of solitude, it cannot really be separated from the liturgical means. Means and end are inextricable. Thought and experience are inseparable in the liturgy, as they are in art. Changes in the liturgy are of great significance to the believer, since they are changes in the experience of God. The question whether or not to use the Book of Common Prayer of the Tridentine Mass are not questions of ‘mere form’. To suppose that the rite is a matter of form is to imagine just the kind of separation of form and content, which is, the death by protestation, of a true common culture.

Oscar Wilde provides further insight:

It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.

I Love a Parade!

Catholics mean to console me: Just because the Church no longer celebrates Rogation days with the Mass, the Litany of the Saints and processions, I can still practice the personal devotions of fasting and prayer that accompany these days. They tell me I can practice Catholicism by myself.

This will not do.

The personal devotions of fasting and prayer are valuable but that is not what Rogation days are about.

I need a parish, I need other people—Rogation days cannot be reduced to the practice of personal disciplines. Rogation days are characterized by collective practices: the Litany of the Saints, the Mass and processions.

catholic procession 1

At least they were until Vatican II (from the Wiki): “The reform of the Liturgical Calendar for Latin Roman Catholics in 1969 delegated the establishment of Rogation Days, along with Ember Days, to the episcopal conferences.Their observance in the Latin Church subsequently declined.”

More on Rogation days

The postconciliar church did not technically banish Rogation days, but it’s a de facto banishment nevertheless.

The postconciliar church destroyed the collective, communal practices of Rogation days but allows us to still practice personal devotions—how very Protestant!

That is another reason I converted—I grew weary of Evangelical Bible study and “quiet times”, I was tired of just “me and Jesus.”

I want to be a cog in a wheel. I long for communal practices.

There is nothing better than a procession.


The communal practices of Catholicism provided opportunities for participants to experience what the philosopher, Roger Scruton, refers to as “species being” (start at around 4:56):

Historical Documents

As a new convert, I have tried to understand Catholicism. It soon became apparent that the Church ran off the rails at Vatican II: she traded beauty for ugliness; intellectual rigor for vacuity and flattened transcendence into immanence. I am forcing myself to read the 16 Vatican II documents that are primarily responsible for the desecration. And what a chore it is. The worst offender, so far, is Gaudium et Spes. How can anyone read this thing and find anything of value? Gaudium et Spes is a prime specimen of the ambiguity, and contradiction present in all the documents, but it has an extra helping of dated sociological analysis and mid-20th Century hubris.

More on intentional ambiguity.

I am surprised to hear Catholics refer to these documents with so much undeserved reverence. I am reminded of other much revered historical documents:

It is ironic how the Fathers of Vatican II energetically trashed twenty centuries of tradition in their efforts to fashion the Church into the bright, shiny, hip, modern institution they so desired. For all of their egregious efforts, she is now just tawdry and sad. Interesting how Thomism, which the Church jettisoned at Vatican II, feels proper and fitting for our present moment. Thomist, Thomas Joseph White, OP reasons about God:

For more insight on the problematic nature of Vatican II documents:

Even Cardinal Kaspar admits intentional ambiguity

Dr. Philip Blosser weighs in on the Council Review of Second Vatican Council: An Unwritten Story by Italian, historian, Roberto de Mattei