Saturday, July 29, 2006

How authority works

Quite a few American bishops seem to be clueless when it comes to the way authority and obedience work in the real world. They feel free to ignore anything coming out of Rome that they don't like, and then are surprised and indignant when their priests and administrators follow their example and decide to ignore what they say.

Now, I'd love to send the guys who need some instruction in this (and thank God there are now many who don't, like Chaput and Vasa) to a big-ticket week-long workshop with a trendy management guru and plenty of breakout sessions, in, say, Aspen or Honolulu. But I just don't think that would be right, given the cash-strapped condition of many of their dioceses, after the umpteenth settlement for the priestly pederasty they've been ignoring.

No, I think I'll just suggest they zip over to the public library and borrow Patrick O'Brian's Master and Commander, where the secret is revealed in two sentences, for free:

A commander is obeyed by his officers because he himself is obeying; the thing is not in its essence personal; and so down. If he does not obey, the chain weakens.

Thanks for coming, your excellencies. Have a safe trip home.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Not by scripture alone

One of the things that drove me away from Protestantism and back to the RCC was the Protestant insistence on sola scriptura, the exclusive reliance upon the Bible for Christian truth (and therefore a rejection of the authority of the teaching tradition of the Church). It did seem odd, once I finally thought about it, that so vital a doctrine as sola scriptura isn't actually in the scriptura. Then I read this, in Survivals and New Arrivals by the English convert Hilaire Belloc:

Since the authority of the Church was denied, some other authority had to be accepted. The parallel authority of Holy Scripture was put forward. Then came the obvious difficulty, that, since there was no external authoritative Church, there was no one to tell you what Holy Scripture meant, and you were thrown back on the interpretation which each individual might make of any passage in the Bible, or its general sense. For instance (to take the leading example) the individual had to decide for himself what was meant by the words of Consecration. But the modern extension of the thing has gone far beyond such comparatively orthodox limits as trusting to the authority of Holy Scripture, even under private interpretation. It has taken the form of basing religion upon individual feelings. Men and women say: "This is true, because it is true to me. I have felt this, and therefore I know it to be true."

Come to think of it, if you want a religion that's really big on sola scriptura today, you probably want Islam. Where the Koran (but only in Arabic!) is the equivalent of Christ to Christians. Or so wrote Newsweek's religion editor, when he explained why last year's riots over allegedly flushed Korans (which turned out not to have been flushed) were perfectly reasonable, because the Koran is so much more important to Muslims than the Bible is to Christians.

Which shows how things can go fatally wrong when people start thinking a book, not God, deserves the honor due to God alone.

Saturday, July 22, 2006


A few posts ago I revealed that I didn't have a clue who the eminent architect Henry Hardinge Menzies is. His profile is here. His fine article God in a Box is here.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Why we need beauty in our churches

This world in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair.

This, from John Paul II's Letter to Artists, in which he recalled what the Fathers said at the end of Vatican II, quoted in this article.

Ten myths that deserve a good whack

For those who want to see beautiful new Catholic churches built, and beautiful old ones kept that way, I'd strongly recommend Duncan Stroik's article Ten Myths of Contemporary Church Architecture. It was originally published in Mr. Stroik's periodical Sacred Architecture, but is conveniently available online here.

A few excerpts:

[Myth] 1. The Second Vatican Council requires us to reject traditional church architecture and design new churches in a Modernist style.

This myth is based more on what Roman Catholics have built during the past thirty years than on what the Church has taught. Even by professional accounts, the church architecture of the past decade has been an unmitigated disaster. However, actions often speak louder than words, and the faithful have been led to believe that the Church requires buildings to be functional abstractions, because that is what we have been building. Nothing could be farther from the intentions of the Council fathers who clearly intended the historic excellence of Catholic architecture to continue. It is most important to keep in mind that "there must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them, and care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing." (Sacrosanctum Concilium) ...

[Myth] 2. New churches must be designed in accordance with the document Environment and Art in Catholic Worship, published by the Bishop's Committee on Liturgy in 1977.

Due to the lack of any alternative, this pamphlet has become the veritable bible for many new and renovated churches. This document, which was never voted on by the American Bishop's conference and holds no canonical weight, is based more on the principles of Modernist architecture than on Roman Catholic teaching, or her patrimony of sacred architecture. Among its weaknesses is an overemphasis on a congregational view of the Church, an antagonism towards history and tradition, and a strident iconoclasm. Because of the controversial nature of the document, the Bishop's Committee on the Liturgy is presently drafting a new and hopefully improved version.

[Myth] 6. The fan shape, in which everyone can see the assembly and be close to the altar, is the most appropriate form for expressing the full, active and conscious participation of the body of Christ.

This myth comes out of the extreme view that the assembly is the primary symbol of the church. While the fan shape is a wonderful shape for theater, for lectures, even for representative government - it is not an appropriate shape for the liturgy. Ironically, the reason often stated for using the fan shape is to encourage participation, yet the semicircular shape is derived from a room for entertainment. The fan shape does not derive from the writings of the Second Vatican Council, it derives from the Greek or Roman theater. Up until recently, it was never used as a model for Catholic churches. In fact, the first theater churches were 19th century Protestant auditoriums designed so as to focus on the preacher.

Some days are just like this

I don't know about you, but there are days when I long to put out this sign.

(Seen at the Fukugawa Edo museum in Tokyo, during our 2004 vacation. Actually, they were open.)

Thursday, July 20, 2006

A sight for sore eyes

If, like me, your heart just breaks to see the many new Catholic cathedrals and churches that look more like airport lounges, concert halls, or clean rooms; or to see fine old cathedrals and churches get the sacred renovated completely out of them; then you should definitely spend some time at The Institute for Sacred Architecture. You'll feel better, I promise!

Take a look, for instance, at the renovation of the Cathedral of St. Augustine in Bridgeport, Connecticut, featured on the homepage. I hadn't heard of the architect, Henry Menzies, but I'm sure going to keep an eye on him now. Look at the baldacchino over the altar in the photo -- a very traditional element interpreted in a thoroughly contemporary way, beautifully and respectfully done.

I like the sound of this:

The centerpiece of Mr. Menzies’ design is the altar, which is, without a doubt, the crowning aspect of the project. The altar is the focus of the church, and the eye is invariably drawn to it from almost any point in the cathedral. The color scheme and floor patterns chosen by Mr. Menzies accentuate the altar’s importance and help to focus the eye. The color scheme inside consists of very pale walls and columns, highlighted by gold capitals. The eye is drawn from the capitals along the ribs of the nave ceiling. The ceiling is painted blue, reminiscent of color schemes of the Renaissance. The ceiling represents heaven, often painted blue to portray the heavens within the structure of the church. The attention is then gathered at more highly colorful areas of the church, such as the altar and side chapels.

The centerpiece is the altar -- AND it's in its proper place. The whole atmosphere is one of quiet, beauty, and reverence. I love the colors.

You could really get excited about going to Heaven in a place like that.

A typhoon rosary

Yikes! I just realized that I'm on my thirteenth Patrick O'Brian novel today (The Nutmeg of Consolation), having started the series only a few weeks ago. This has turned into a serious addiction. It's going to be hard when I get to that unfinished 21st volume.

I remarked a few posts back about the passage in which Stephen Maturin, the Irish-Catalan ship's doctor, seeks out a Mass in Boston in 1812. In the novel I just finished, The Thirteen Gun Salute, there's another fine Catholic moment. He and his friend Captain Aubrey are sitting in the dark on a desolate island as a spectacular typhoon batters their ship to matchwood just offshore. In one of the enormous lightning flashes, Aubrey looks over -- and sees Stephen praying the Rosary.

It's very interesting, the way Maturin's character has been developed to this point in the series. He's the consummate scientist and man of reason, but he's also clearly a passionate Catholic, one who can take consolation in a moment of crisis from the Rosary that is so much out of vogue in many Catholic parishes today.

I guess I have another reason to note this episode: in announcing the approach of the typhoon, with its unearthly seas and weird copper-violet skies, Stephen quotes lines from one of my favorite bits of verse, Dryden's Ode for St. Cecelia's Day:

So when the last and dreadful hour
This crumbling pageant shall devour,
The trumpet shall be heard on high,
The dead shall live, the living die,
And music shall untune the sky.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006


What we do in life echoes in eternity.

That was the tag line of one of my favorite movies of the last ten years: Gladiator.

It's a terrifying thought, that. All that we do in each instant of time is a word that echoes not for a year, or an age, but for eternity. The good words, and the bad we cannot erase, but can only beg to be forgiven for. It will form the music we must listen to in saecula saeculorum.

And not only in eternity. Each moment's choice of virtue or vice, justice or injustice, courage or cowardice, alters the music of time, as well. Each choice makes certain things possible, and dictates that other things will never happen unto the world's end.

What colossal responsibilities even a day's worth of human life contains!

Sunday, July 09, 2006

The old ways were better, chapter 347

Sometimes, the old ways just worked better. Not so obviously at first. But sooner or later, the benefits of the old ways come out in unexpected ways. Just like the benefits of virtue.

Lately, there's been a good deal of attention paid to the potential of a bird flu epidemic. This has even stimulated some discussion about modifying certain modern practices in the distribution of the Eucharist if an epidemic really get going, to prevent the spread of contagion.

Let's review how Communion is often done today. The priest consecrates the bread and wine. The bread is handed to the communicant, who puts the bread into his own mouth with his hand, then also drinks from a common cup or chalice, whose rim is wiped with a cloth after each person drinks.

Contrast this with the bad old days we're taught to despise by many bishops and diocesan personnel. The priest would consecrate the bread and wine, but would bring only the bread to the communicants; he would then place the Host on the tongue of each person. No wine would be offered at all.

Add to these differences that before Vatican II, there was no such thing as shaking hands at the Peace, before Communion.

So let's look at all these changes from the standpoint of preventing the spread of disease -- many diseases, not just bird flu.

Under the new customs, everyone shakes hands with several other people a few minutes before Communion. News flash: shaking hands is a nifty way to transfer germs from one person to another. Then people go up for Communion, take their consecrated bread in their own now-contaminated hands, and put it in their mouth. Next, they drink a sip of wine from the same cup as several hundred other people, the rim of which has been ineffectually wiped with a cloth which itself is just collecting germs as it goes along.

Under the old customs, only one person ever touched the Host before it arrived directly on your tongue: the priest. The priest who publicly washed his hands at the beginning of the Offertory. I know, it was a ceremonial washing. I served Mass back then, and knew that some priests wanted only a few drops on the their fingertips, while others wanted a veritable flood. But either way, I never saw a priest approach either the side of the altar to wash his hands, or the altar rail to distribute Communion, with anything but scrupulously clean hands.

I hope it's pretty clear to everyone, whether liberal or conservative, that the old customs were simply less likely to transmit sickness among the congregation.

But we added the germ-spreading handshakes, and the taking of the Eucharist in the germy hand, and the drinking from the germy common cup, so we could be -- I don't know what. Trendier. Up with the times. Just different from the past. More like the Protestants.

What we got was sicker. In more ways than one.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Nine hundred years and counting

Nine-hundred and thirty-five years ago, at Manzikert in eastern Anatolia, the Islamic conquest of what we today call Turkey began its final phase, with a crushing victory over the army of the Byzantine Empire. It continues today, not with armies -- the need for such effort has long passed -- but with the solitary knife and pistol. From Catholic News Service:

A French missionary priest survived a knife attack on July 1, but Church leaders in Turkey are worried by a rising tide of anti-Christian violence in the months leading up to a visit by Pope Benedict XVI.

Father Pierre Brunissen was badly wounded when he was stabbed twice by a man who was promptly taken into police custody. Authorities said that the priest's assailant appeared mentally unbalanced.

The AsiaNews service reports, however, that Father Brunissen had received a number of threats in recent weeks, and the parish church he served in the town of Samsun had been vandalized. The violence and intimidation had increased, AsiaNews said, after the murder of an Italian missionary, Father Andrea Santoro, in the Turkish town of Trabzon, in February. The young man charged with killing Father Santoro, who was also described as unbalanced, shouted an Islamic slogan after shooting the priest.

Bishop Luigi Padovese, the apostolic nuncio in Turkey, told the Associated Press that he would like to believe officials' assurances that the assault on Father Brunissen "has nothing to do with Islamic fundamentalism." But he said that hostility toward the Church has increased significantly in recent months, with an apparent campaign against Christian influence, and "it is the Catholic priests who are being targeted."

Bishop Padovese seems to know the score. The "unbalanced" assailants of Frs. Brunissen and Santoro are no more than the undisciplined vanguard of the assault of the real Islam upon all things outside it -- including any brand of moderate Islam inclined to accommodate Western or Christian influences -- that will soon engulf Turkey. Not even the gentlest, most peaceful Christian presence, exemplified by these two priests, can be tolerated by the real Islam. A generation ago, there were still sizable religious minorities in Turkey. They are dwindling today, and soon there will be none.

What is utterly galling in this is that every square foot of what we now call "Turkey" -- and accept as naturally and natively Muslim -- was once the heartland of Christianity. Its churches at Ephesus and in Galatia were the recipients of letters from St. Paul. Its plains once fed the whole Byzantine Empire. Its sturdy Christian peasantry filled the ranks of the Empire's army, which alone fought off every pagan and Muslim challenger for centuries. Until Manzikert.