Wednesday, June 28, 2017


In most pre-20th century, Western cities the most impressive building in town is a church built within a century or two of the city's founding for Catholic worship. This is not just true in Rome or New York, but even in modestly sized towns like Salisbury in England, which today boasts a population no larger than it did in medieval times. For all the poverty of past times, the pennies of the poor collectively contributed to impressive and lasting structures which seemed as constant as the God they were built to worship.

Houses were not all that different. Republican and Imperial Roman homes as well as homes from the medieval period onward were built to last for several generations and form the corpus of an ordinary family's inheritance, which would fall to the next paterfamilias in line. Not every house was Blenheim Palace, or even the Breakers, but ordinary families developed their properties for posterity and added to it with every generation.

Then came the Industrial Revolution, and the Middle Class was willed into being. Increased disposable income combined with mechanized manufacturing processes to create affordable facsimiles to traditional goods. Tailors began to disappear in favor of ill-fitted, machine-made suits; the vibrant, coach-built automobiles were replaced by standard body, standard color vehicles; the Old Fashion somehow acquired a cherry and Bourbon; and the unique, organic outlook on church architecture was supplanted by a cookie-cutter pattern: big altar wit the big six, Mary and Joseph altars on either side, and a plaster statue of the Sacred Heart.

Gone were the vast, empty churches to be furnished by guilds, sodalities, generous donors, and the pennies of the future poor. In were churches built for immediate satisfaction. It was not unlike today's McMansions, which create the most recent global recession, in that it provides immediate satisfaction instead of prolonged enjoyment by means of fakery. That's right, fakery. Just as a proper mansion (or peasant home, for that matter) has had numerous bricks re-pointed, wings added, copper and slate roofing, and changes perceptible from generation to generation, a proper church is an organic and living structure. A McMansion, on the other hand, looks like a mansion in that is has spires, pillars, colonnade, and cooper roofing, but on the inside it is replete with the most modern amenities, crummy furniture, and structural work intended to last no more than 20 or 30 years. It is a fleeting pleasure for those who want it and can afford it, not unlike our churches.

The McChurch model has changed considerably since the end of World War II. Mary and Joseph altars have given way to the only noticeable decor, the oversized Crucifix (or sometimes Resurrexifix). The Sacred Heart plaster statue has made room for Eucharistic adoration chapels, often with monstrous monstrances built into brutalistic tabernacles. Perhaps in an alcove, near the "Reconciliation Room", is an out of place oriental icon of the Theotokos. It is quite generic, ready-made, and unusable for an artistically inclined or growing community (unless the community wishes to grow by razing the existing structure for a new McChurch every generation).

By contrast, what a sermon it would be for the McMansion generation to build a proper, vertically-minded church with room for a Marian chapel one day. How about a real baptistry, with eight walls, separated from the nave or sanctuary, and encased in depictions of the Baptism in the Jordan or the Baptism of Saint Augustine? Or perhaps even a modest versus Deum altar against a reredros showing the important events of the patron saint of the church? Even one well-executed addition each generation speaks volumes more to the pagan and to the un-catechized Catholic than a thousand McChurches.

Better yet, proper churches tend to roll over from generation to generation and are not viewed as disposable assets. Even Salisbury Cathedral, built for medieval Catholic worship and now beholden to Anglicanism for over four centuries, without a Mass since the reign of Queen Mary Tudor, preaches a better sermon on the Catholic faith than this or this.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Maureen Mullarkey on Kitsch

Here are a pair of articles worth reading on the triumph of kitsch in Western religious art (here and here) from the mid-19th century onward. She accurately observes that the sentimental, saccharine kitsch that pervaded post-19th century art was a poor man's imitation of the expensive skillful Baroque and Renaissance art.

Would not we be better returning to the mosaic, iconographic, and medieval statuary traditions, which did not require once-in-a-decade talent and great cost to produce?

A Burning and Shining Light [Repost]

[The supplanting of that most ancient celebration of the Vigil of St. John's Nativity by the Sacred Heart devotional feast (due to a peculiarity of the current calendar year) prompted this repost of last year's praise of the Savior's forerunner, that great man who was so close to Christ's heart and mind. Perhaps no saint is more needed in our current trial, where even ostensibly traditional churchmen wink at divorce and adultery.]

(Pierre Puvis de Chavannes)
St. John’s Eve is tonight, a celebration of the Nativity of the Forerunner. No other saint’s birth is celebrated in the liturgical kalendar, apart from the nativities of Christ and Mary. If the Josephites have their way, the stepfather of Christ will someday receive a similar feast, but for now we are spared that indignity.

Among those born of women, none have risen greater than John the Baptist, who was filled with the Holy Spirit in his sainted mother’s womb. None deserve to have universal side-chapels opposite the Virgin more than John, which would be a magnificent continuation of the ancient iconographic tradition of the Deësis. While the pre-ministerial years of Our Lord are shrouded in shadow, we know that he expressed a great affection for his cousin with many compliments:
“For John came to you in the way of justice, and you did not believe him.” (Mt. 21) 
“He was a burning and a shining light, and you were willing for a time to rejoice in his light.” (Jn. 5) 
“The baptism of John, was it from Heaven, or from men?” (Mk. 11) 
“Amongst those that are born of women, there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist.” (Lk. 7) 
“What went you out into the desert to see? a reed shaken with the wind? But what went you out to see? a man clothed in soft garments? Behold they that are clothed in soft garments, are in the houses of kings. But what went you out to see? a prophet? yea I tell you, and more than a prophet. For this is he of whom it is written: ‘Behold I send my angel before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before thee.’” (Mt. 11)
Angel, Burning Light, More Than a Prophet, Friend of the Bridegroom—the Forerunner is given the Messiah’s stamp of approval at every opportunity, even though John himself says that “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn. 3). But “he that shall humble himself shall be exalted” (Mt. 23), and thus the Church has historically placed him opposite the Virgin herself in his exalted intercessory position.

One can easily imagine The Baptist in a desert place as a young man, preparing for the mission ahead of him. Like the later desert hermits, the Devil must have sent his craftiest lieutenants against him, perhaps wondering if his imperviousness to temptation meant he was the promised Messiah.

John was a martyr, but not for baptizing nor for prophesying the Christ. He was murdered for one simple, repeated declaration: “It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother’s wife.” God could have permitted John to live well into the new dispensation, to witness the Crucifixion and Pentecost, and to be finally martyred as a Prophet of the Risen Christ. Perhaps it was not fitting that John should outshine the Twelve, or perhaps it was most fitting that the prelapsarian tradition of marriage should be witnessed bloodily by a sinless man even as Jesus was reestablishing its pre-Mosaic form. The strumpet Salome was herself the product of a broken marriage, a fitting image of contemporary times.

Even long after his death, the bones of St. John produced so many miracles that Julian the Apostate began to burn and pulverize them before the remaining relics were rescued. Today his cult has been pulverized: his feast cheapened into a yearly bonfire party, when it is celebrated at all, and his relics called into question by thoughtless bishops.
“For Herod feared John, knowing him to be a just and holy man, and kept him. And when he heard him, did many things, and he heard him willingly.” (Mk. 6)
But for the craftiness of Herod’s concubine, John would have lived and probably converted the king to repentance. Elijah, too, was harassed constantly by the witch-queen Jezabel. He escaped the persecution of the prophet-killer by a fiery chariot, but the Second Elijah was made to suffer and die for the perpetuation of the lie of Herodias’ marriage.

Centuries later, his namesake John Chrysostom would denounce the neo-pagan queen Aelia Eudoxia, who in her turn would depose and banish the bishop. “Again Herodias raves,” he preached, “again she is troubled; she dances again; and again desires to receive John’s head in a charger.” The golden-mouthed John would eventually die in exile from his bishopric.
“What peace? so long as the fornications of Jezabel thy mother, and her many sorceries are in their vigor.” (II Kg. 9)
There will be no peace until the wicked queen is thrown by her unmanned slaves to the dogs. There will be no peace until the birth of a true prophet is celebrated, until his father’s dumbness is released and his mother’s childless shame is removed.

Herod feared John, so did Herodias, and so should we.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Salt of the Earth

"As a boy, then, I had already heard of eternal life promised us through the humility of the Lord our God stooping to our pride; and even from the womb of my mother, who hoped greatly in Thee, I was sealed with the sign of the Cross and salted with His salt," wrote Saint Augustine in his Confessions.

Salt is the fix for flavorless food, although too much can ruin a good thing. More conventionally, it was a means of preserving meats, fruits, and a few other foods that could spoil before the concoction of refrigeration. Cardinal Newman, among others, wrote that growth was the only the only sign of life. Salt kept and improved what it touched; what it did not touch decayed and rotted.

So, like water which cleansed and satiated, or bread with nourishes, or wine which "gladdens the heart of man", salt was hallowed by Christ in Christian language. The Christian is the salt of the earth, which gives the earth its savor and which the Christian sins in hiding from others. Salt is Christian charity and goodness, purified by Baptism an enlightened by the Beatitudes.

By the time of Saint Augustine, salt had become a tool of blessing and exorcising those things ridden in darkness. The catechumens or the ailing un-baptized would be anointed with holy oil and signed with salt for the cleansing of their ailments and the expulsion of evil in the hope that those pagans would eventually enter the waters of Baptism. From his Confessions one might surmise that the Doctor from Hippo was salted at the behest of St. Monica after birth and, perhaps, once more during a near-fatal sickness. The aspiring rhetorician lived to be baptized properly and the Church is better for it, perhaps through the healing Christ granted in this uniquely Latin sacramental.

Only after consulting Fr. Capreolus did I discover salt has been exorcised from the deformed new rite of Baptism. Baptized a Methodist at age one, I was unaware of current Roman praxis. Eastern clergy often applaud vernacular in the new Roman liturgy, but retain qualms about the gutting of the Baptismal service.

In an era of innovation and fakery, when even a three Michelin star chef like Marco Pierre White urges us to use artificial substitutes in cooking, we ought not be surprised that the same has happened in our liturgy. Perhaps Paul VI should have revised the Sermon on the Mount to read, "You are the Knorr Beef Stock Cube of the earth."

Friday, June 16, 2017

After the Reformation II: The Mutable Heresy

I have been thinking of how I can contribute to the "After the Reformation" series begun by His Traddiness. One might think that I, having been raised an Evangelical Protestant, would have much to say on the cultural effects of the Reformation, but I already said quite a bit about the paucity of Evangelical culture in a post from last year:
They have no lasting poetry, no sculpture, no memorable novels, no architecture, no music that isn’t a cheap imitation or childish emoting. When an Evangelical wishes to learn how to integrate faith and the arts, he inevitably falls back on Catholic examples, and then spends hours explaining to his friends why reading Flannery O’Connor doesn’t necessarily make one a dirty papist.
Consider the American Calvinist. Occasionally this individual will be a member of a mainstream denomination like the Presbyterians, but most often the Calvinist is to be found in a small, roaming pack of co-religionists. Rather than living within the tradition of the great iconoclast John Knox, they make historical reference solely to the 17th-century Synod of Dort by way of its oversimplification in the 20th-century floral mnemonic TULIP. Sometimes they can quote Calvin himself, but only as already quoted by a Calvinist preacher. Their taste in clothing, facial hair, and alcohol have more in common with urban hipsters than with their Reformed forebears. As likely as not, they belong to no denomination, but only to some "local church."

The case is even worse with the more generic Evangelical Christian. There is no unifying principle, even for a single community—no history, no hymnody, no common creed beyond a bland belief in the Trinity and the authority of the Scriptures. Ministers are often burdened with attendees who are not even certain they believe in God because they are so angry with their Creator. (Horrifyingly, our Catholic parishes resemble the Evangelical milieu more and more every year.)

Protestantism is a persistent heresy in part because it is so good at adaptation. The first few generations of this movement reinvented themselves to appeal to the needs of the time. Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Melanchthon, and all the rest were vastly different personalities with vastly differing theologies, all flying more or less under the banner of the five Solas for the appearance of unanimity. Luther was a crypto-Manichean, but Melanchthon retroactively wrote him as an Augustine revivalist. King Henry exploited Protestantism for his own gains, caring little for theology.

As time went on, even the Solas fell out of favor, until Sola Scriptura was the last one standing. And then, liberal Protestants ate away even at the authority of the Holy Writ with its endless stream of German Panzer exegetes. Fewer and fewer Protestants, even self-professed conservatives, can be found today who unironically profess the authority of Scripture.

Luther exploited the exhaustion of the laity who were sickened by simony and clerical lechery. Calvin exploited the rising humanistic trends of linguistics and the dismissal of gradually developed tradition. Knox exploited the political chaos in Britain to loot the churches of Scotland. The so-called Great Awakenings were movements that exploited resentments and pushed for social justice, birthing denominations like an endless series of bastard children. Historical-Critical scholarship exploited the rise of skepticism and anti-religious sentiment. Charismatic groups exploited the dryness that came from an excess of loveless doctrine. Televangelists exploited the lonely and desperate who had no friends outside of their television sets.

Doctrinally, Protestantism might as well be renamed Proteanism in its perversion of the Pauline desire to become "all things to all men." The heresies concerning justification and the sacraments were condemned at Trent, but most spiritual descendants of the Reformation today could not even explain what they believe about those things. They attend church services to hear a nice sermon that may or may not be about Jesus, and sometimes hope to be convicted by "the Spirit" to change their lives for the better, but they don't care to know much about the nature and character of God. They come for the community and the small discussion groups, sometimes for the marriage counseling. When they stop feeling "fed," they move on to what seems like greener pastures at a new church.

For all its faults, the Counter-Reformation insisted on retaining a recognizable Catholic identity in the Roman Rite (liturgically, theologically, and artistically), and this monolithic homogenization was a draw to those exhausted by the shifting waves of Protestantland. Eventually, Protestantism found a way to exploit even the Catholic Church, adjusting itself like a parasite to a new host, and now the Church finds herself desperate to adapt to every perceived need of modern man, no matter how little modern man cares for her attention.

The Church has raised up many opponents to the Protestant mutagen, but they are all as different as their target chose to become: Erasmus, Robert Bellarmine, the Society of Jesus, Francis de Sales, and so on. There is an argument to be made that Protestantism is just a continuation of the old Manichean heresy that itself traces back to the Gnostics of Apostolic times. So perhaps there is no true end of the perennial heresy until the end of the world. Even if the last traces of Luther and Calvin are eradicated from the earth, some mutated strain would live on in the hearts of men. The best we can do is prevent infection and hold true, even when many in the Church recommend succumbing to its sway.

Prayer card for the martyrs of Douai College.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Ember Wednesday: Date this Collect

The few sources I have found on the matter date the octave of Pentecost to around the 800s. Before that, the Sunday of Pentecost coincided with the seasonal ember days, so, given the Baptismal and creation-based character of the feast, it seemed reasonable to extend it over the ember days to each the whole week.

Some of the language in today's collect hints that the ember Mass pre-dates a certain dispute of language....

Mentes nostras, quǽsumus, Dómine, Paráclitus, qui a te procédit, illúminet: et indúcat in omnem, sicut tuus promísit Fílius, veritátem.... Per Dominum nostrum....

Sunday, June 4, 2017

After the Reformation I: "My Words Will Never Pass Away"

Some weeks ago I was meandering through a bookshop, trying to kill excess time before a distant appointment, when I happened upon a special edition of Life magazine called Blessed Art Thou Amongst Women. Pompeo Batoni’s Virgin of the Annunciation graced the cover of this well illustrated little volume on the Blessed Mother. A Catholic, Robert Sullivan, wrote the long essay inside, an essay which aspires toward a broad perspective on Mary that befits modern journalism, an overview on what she means to people rather than who she is. One particular line caught my view while thumbing through the line; I cannot recall the phrase precisely, but it effectively surmised that the reactionary Reformers of the 16th century preferred the narrowly known Mary of the Bible over the experientially known Mary of medieval Catholic devotions and miracles. And with this the influence of the Reformers’ sola scriptura doctrine crystalizes in modern times.

The Reformation broke out at the end of the Middle Ages, an epoch characterized by an extroverted, almost militant piety which asserted that Christ, the Saints, and holy things had a normal, continual presence in the world and which, by the faithful’s cooperation with them in a penitential spirit, the Church could obtain favor from heaven and the remission of sins. Or say contemporary textbooks. Factually, all of this is true, if amiss in characterizing the spirit of the Middle Ages, the apex of the Latin liturgy, monasticism, pilgrimage, papal power, and also administrative corruption. Many of the virtues of the medieval period—penance, Mass, pilgrimage—became occasions of vice for ambitious Italian and Spanish families in the form of ready-paid indulgences, fraudulent Mass stipends for aliturgical “dry” and votive Masses, and military actions dissimulated as holy war. It was in this time, at the close of the medieval period, that Luther left the loo to make his objections.

In the same bookshop I sauntered over to the religion section and found myself thumbing through one of Diarmaid MacCulloch’s books on the Reformation. He resolutely denies that Renaissance decadence was the condition sine qua non for the Reformation, instead insisting that the Reformers, especially Calvin, were returning to the orthodoxy of Chalcedon—which is convenient, because a few councils later the Church declared the absolute orthodoxy of venerating holy images. This is rubbish. All reform movements are inherently reactionary, at least in cause; they handicap themselves the more they hew to their reactionary stimuli rather than the challenges of the day. But also, reform movements look at the current state, compare it to the past, and find the need to purify the current day to make it like unto the past. This is fine within living memory, but Reformation idealized an age fourteen centuries passed.

In reaction to the excesses of medieval piety and the sums the Borgias and their imitators profited, the Reformers sought consolation in the Scriptures and their friendly confines, where Mary says very little, the Apostles even less, sins are pardoned without the aid of manuals for penance, and there is no Roman Canon. The Reformers arrived at sola scriptura, paradoxically accompanied by two or four other solae, depending on one’s numbering. Within these Scriptures, they taught, all Truth resides for the profit, belief, and salvation of the believer. The reduction of the Truth to what was recounted in a book may seem narrower and purer to modern academics skeptical of medieval piety, but at the time it must have carried an elitist association on par with owning a Rolls-Royce in modern times.

A Rolls-Royce and a Gutenberg-era book have much in common: new both cost as much as the average person made in several years, both took quite a while to produce, both were decorated with the finest materials, and both required something special to wield (in modern times a chauffeur and in older times literacy). One might retort that the non-nobles and non-clergy who possessed academic and functional literacy could read the Scriptures at the local cathedral library, but then again one can rent a Roller for one’s special occasions.

The diffusion of literacy and cheapness of printing after Gutenberg’s press made its way to factories made the Scriptures more accessible to people, who would now understand the Bible in a different way than people had in the old religion. A Catholic would readily admit the profitability of reading the Scriptures, that they are written under Divine inspiration and contain no error of doctrine, and that they are integral to the faithful’s religion; why else would the Church read them at the Office and Eucharist? Where the Church comes full stop is in asserting that the Scriptures are sufficient for all truth and belief. For example, what if someone wants to better their Christian virtue? They can and should read the Gospels to meditate on the miracles and teachings of Christ; they can take some inspiration from the Acts of the Apostles, but little more; the rest of the New Testament has exhortations to virtue proper to the problems of the day, which can often apply to us, but they were not absolutely written for our specific challenges. Saint Luke is aware that he is writing Scripture, Paul is not. Without the examples of the post-Apostolic saints and the various kinds of devotion (pilgrimages, types of penance, parish customs and charities) that emerged over time, one is left with the need to personalize the contents of Scripture to one’s own life rather than take the Evangelists’ plain words as they are meant to be heard.

While popular piety was time-travelling into the Apostolic and Old Testament age, like characters from the ‘80s B film Time Bandits, the scholar class born of the same Renaissance Europe began to take a very different approach to the Scriptures. A renewed interest in Greek language and culture followed the appeal of Emperor John to the western bishops at Venice and the exile of Byzantine scholars and clergy (most famously Bessarion) to Italy after the fall of Constantinople. These men read the New Testament in the Greek original in between Aristotle and Homer. A revival in Greek scholarship enabled various vernacular translations without using the Vulgate as an intermediary; mostly famously, the King James edition came from this movement. By the 18th century the scholarly class had taken a view of the Scriptures quite contrary to what the translators of prior times had. Years of guessing at the better use of words here or there and the study of language patterns gave rise to the notion that the Scriptures were written over a century after their purported events and that their texts constitute several editions of various corruptions, emendations, and made up nonsense that can best be characterized as a wishful piety. At worst, there is Voltaire’s entry for “Eucharist” in his thoroughly blasphemous Dictionnaire philosophique.

By the 19th century a cottage industry of linguists dedicated to the study of religious texts had emerged in Germany. They studied the Koran, the Old Testament, and the New, only to find all three wanting. The Koran was written off as the result of tribal superstition written down in a developing language with poor structure; the Old Testament did not fare much better; consensus arose that the New Testament probably derived from some fellow known to us today as the “Historical Jesus”, and that the Christ described in the Prologue of Saint John’s Gospel came about some time later. The Church resisted this secular take on the Scriptures—the New Testament assertions of which have fallen out of favor in recent decades—until the 20th century, when the German outlook coincided with the ecumenical movement. Was there not a book called The Rhine Flows into the Tiber?

At last we return to where we began, at the Barnes & Noble at 75 and Northwest Freeway in Dallas, reading snippets of Life magazine’s edition on the Blessed Virgin. The post-Christian world agrees with both the pietist and the scholarly aspects of the Reformed Biblical perspective. Christianity was simpler, purer, and without unnecessary extras during the era of the New Testament, when people heard the words of Jesus and kept them without candles before icons, vestments, popes, or works. It also finds that static, real-only-for-a-few-years-and-irrelevant-to-us-now version of events hopelessly impossible to justify according to the historical record and linguistic analysis. We end with a Mary bereft of the Rosary, intercession, and the title “Mother of God”, being left with a Mary who is only known through a few passages of Sacred Scripture and whose role in those texts is best glossed over; at best they might detract from focus on Christ and at worst the Magnificat itself is a later interpolation.

Our Lord said, “Heaven and earth shall pass away, my words shall not pass” (Matthew 24:35). They have not, but the doctrine of sola scriptura gave its best effort yet.