"As Perfect Sacrifices go, Father, that was pretty bad."

By Diogenes ( articles ) | Feb 16, 2006

A couple weeks ago I linked to Fr. Vincent Capuano, S.J.'s excellent article on liturgical abuse in religious communities, which appeared in the Adoremus Bulletin. Capuano's analysis is principally focused on the liturgical celebrant, on the complex mixture of motives in response to which the celebrant chooses to walk away from the ritual given us by the Church.

Yet Capuano also touches on the predicament of the man-in-the-pew, and on re-reading his essay I was struck by the image of two-tiered worship that so many Catholics must offer:

Not all members of religious communities like the heterocultic liturgies to which we are subjected. As a priest, if I don't find a community Mass agreeable, I can always say a private Mass. While not optimal, this is still better than an intentionally illicit or invalid Mass.

Contrary to the teaching of liturgists with the standard-issue Brown Belt in church history, the Eucharist comes with No Assembly Required, as Pope John Paul II reaffirmed ("priests should be encouraged to celebrate Mass every day, even in the absence of a congregation, since it is an act of Christ and the Church"). The Mass is meant to be a communal action, of course, but if Father So-and-So happens to be the only Catholic in the vicinity interested in the Catholic shtick, the "local faith community" he belongs to is a community of one. Back to Capuano:

This, however, creates other problems. A religious often has to decide if he wants to worship in communion with the Roman Catholic Church or in communion with local religious community members with whom he lives and works. I often follow the practice of Saint Thomas Aquinas, who out of devotion celebrated a daily private Mass and later assisted in the conventual Mass; I say a private Mass that I am sure will be licit and valid out of devotion, and later assist at the community Mass, which may or may not be licit or valid.

Aquinas, surely, didn't have to make the suggested compromise -- that of assisting at a heterocultic service in order to signal one's general benevolence toward the fraternity. One always feels slightly soiled after being present at an illicit Mass, since it implies non-resistance to a centrifugal, anti-ecclesial ethos, and to that extent mimics a minor apostasy from Catholicism. What results from splitting one's worship into a kosher vertical liturgy to please God and a polluted horizontal liturgy to please one's companions is a kind of fragmentation: "I'm in a communion of faith with these folks, and in a communion of bonhomie with those." Yet Capuano acknowledges that even this far from satisfactory compromise is unavailable to the laity:

The non-ordained don't have the option of celebrating a private Mass and many students and nuns suffer community Masses that are heterocultic. Many religious accept liturgical abuse in a manner similar to how a wife will often accept spousal abuse -- from a false sense of charity and tolerance. It is not that the perpetrator of abuse is completely evil, he often possesses many virtues and admirable qualities. The victim of liturgical abuse, like the victim of spousal abuse, wants to be forgiving, wants to practice tolerance, wants to be charitable. The abuser takes advantage of such desires and sentiments and continues to abuse.

Good points. Just as the co-dependent frau often "projects" an idealized image onto the husband who blackens her eyes, so also many of the faithful ignore the actual liturgy they're obliged to attend -- the liturgy enacted in front of their eyes -- while spiritually feeding on a memorized mental videotape of the Mass as it was meant to be celebrated. This is an instance of the larger lay effort of pretending one's pastors are Catholic, that Skylstad means the same thing as Ratzinger by "affective maturity," etc. And, just as important, to object to mistreatment reveals the victim's defect of charity and the victim's lack of tolerance. "Isn't our marriage about more than laws and rights?" whines the husband whose wife asks the cops to intervene. "Doesn't God care about more important things than rubrics?" complains the priest whose parishioners appeal to the chancery. It's amazing how often it works: the wife feels guilty since she's the one causing the split; the faithful feel guilty since they're the ones being divisive.

So we muddle through, conscious that somehow there's a sanctum sacrificium, immaculata hostia being offered up there on the altar, and striving to swallow our exasperation at the amateur variety show that presents itself to our senses, lest, in the narthex, theology get the upper hand of docility: "As Perfect Sacrifices go, Father, that was pretty bad."

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