Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Bad liturgy is not good for you.

Someone called Simcha Fisher of the National Catholic Register has articulated an argument I've heard a lot over the years, and it seems opportune to confront it: that attending really bad liturgy can be good for the soul. Here's the money quote:

Or you can think to yourself, “Christ is here. And if he can stand it, then so can I.”

You may think I’m kidding, but I’m not. It’s good for us, every once in a while, to attend a liturgy that we think isn’t good enough. It’s good for us to have that sensation of being the only one in the room who comprehends the travesty that is happening around us. Why? Because at some point, in the middle of the noise and the irreverence and the foolish, happy-clappy songs, we’re going to have to go up for Communion. We will have to take God into our mouths. And if we have an honest bone in our bodies, we will have to think, “No, it’s not good enough. And neither am I.”

(Notice the odd sense of obligation to go up for communion.) This isn't just a bizarre argument, it is a confused and dangerous one.

It is bizarre because, as the writer admits, good liturgy is a more worthy offering to God (we are talking of the extrinsic worth of the liturgy here: the Mass obviously has infinite intrinsic worth, if it valid), and helps lift mind and heart to Him. If it helps us pray that, you would think, would be an end to it, from a subjective point of view, and if it is more worthy of God, that settles it objectively. Somehow the author of this post, like many others, manages to accept these points but then ignore them. Furthermore, it should be obvious that the trend in this kind of liturgy is far from being towards humility: it is all about being 'ok', about being worthy after all. Fr Longenecker was closer to the mark when he criticised good liturgy for making people feel humle. (Seriously: see here.) Be that as it may be, the argument of the post confuses two different things, two different kinds of bad liturgy.

Suppose you go to Mass in a neglected church. The floor is unswept and the roof leaks. The altar furnishings are grubby and in need of repair. The rubrics are not followed accurately and the Latin is mispronounced. (Trads may find it easier to follow my argument if they imagine it is a TLM.) There are two explanations, which can in fact be combined in different degrees: the priest and the others looking after things in this church are negligent, or they lack resources and opportunities to do better. If it is the latter this Mass, like Masses said on battlefields, in the attics of recusant houses under persecution, in the corners of concentration camps and the like, may be an offering of great extrinsic worth, because it is the effort of will which is the key factor in such worth, not the material result. If it is the former, as Masses said by priests with a poor spiritual life, who are perhaps going off the rails and have given up caring, it is most disedifying, and a danger signal for the priest. But in neither case does it represent the kind of problem people have in mind when they rail about 'bad liturgy'. The 'bad liturgy' people complain about on the blogs and so on is in fact a completely separate phenomenon.

This is liturgy about which priests and others involved may well care a lot. Resources may have been poured into it. The very latest polyester vestments, pottery chalices and electric guitars may all be in place; the liturgical dancers may have spent hours practicing. The result is both ugly and amateurish, but that is because it is supposed to be ugly and amateurish. Ugliness and amateurism have taken on an ideological significance for the liturgical planners.

Ugliness is important because the outward form is not supposed to matter: ugly pottery chalices are just as good as fine gold ones, and (the ideology holds) Catholics should be forced to get used to them because they will eventually learn it is not the outward form which counts, but the inward reality. This is the 'Heresy of Formlessness' attacked by Martin Mosebach in his book of that title: the idea that the meaning of a ceremony can survive all the outward forms of the ceremony being transformed, and that the Supreme Beauty can be approached best by the ugly, because we will be least distracted by the outward form of the approach itself.

Amateurism is important because the spiritual participation of heart and mind of the congregation in Mass has been completely forgotten (in part, no doubt, because hearts and minds are no longer being lifted to God by beauty). So instead every slightly serious member of the regular congregation is encompassed by an enormous rota of liturgical assistants, and his or her 'participation' is ensured by being dragged into the sanctuary, the choir, or something else of the kind. Instead of the priest choosing the best servers to serve, and the best singers to sing, the finest makers of vestments to supply the vestments and the best craftsmen money can stretch to to provide the altar furnishings, he feels obliged to place the children's misshapen crafts on the altar, have the croakiest voices in the choir, and so on and so forth, to give them a chance to 'participate'. After all, if the result is ugly, he can appeal to the first part of the ideology to make the most of the fact.

The liturgy which results from this ideology may drive many people away from the Church; others suffer in silence. We should not forget, however, the many people who are drawn in. They get used to it; they get into it; they derive satisfaction from it. They have become convinced by the ideology. Since the ideology is false and dangerous, this is an extremely bad thing.

Those obliged to go to this kind of bad liturgy against their will need to give vent to their feelings afterwards to reassure themselves that it is not them who are mad. The alternative is to give this kind of liturgy a chance to seep into one's soul, to get used to it, and even to get to like it. This is not a matter of putting up with something objectively less grand than an orchestral Mass with antique vestments; it is adopting a spiritually dangerous set of views. It is to lose sight of the connection between the beauty and order in creation and their Divine Creator, and to abandon true spiritual participation in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass for 'activism', the participation not of hearts and minds but of arms and legs.

Simcha Fisher should stop complaining about people complaining about bad liturgy, and start helping them do something about it.

Pictures from the Bad Vestments blog.


  1. Michelle4:08 pm

    Thank you for this excellent rebuttal.  It seems to me that the folks defending Simcha might not quite understand why her viewpoint is very problematic.  Repeated exposure to bad liturgy creates a chilling effect and antesthetizes the soul into thinking that "it can't be that bad, anyhow, Jesus i still here."

    What Simcha also forgets is that Jesus, Himself, threw out the moneychangers and the vendors for violating the Sacred space of the Temple.  These folks were doing damage to the Court of the Gentiles, a place of prayer for the non-Jews who had accepted the God of Israel.

  2. Michelle4:13 pm

    Mr. Shaw, I did reply to the NCRegister, but, the readers seemed to be circling the wagons around Ms. Fisher.

  3. Please point to me where Simcha described illicit and invalid practices as being a part of "ugly liturgy".  I've looked and looked and looked, and can't find it.  

  4. Joseph Shaw8:42 pm

    You'll have as much trouble finding the suggestion that she says that in *my* post!

  5. Mary Emily4:23 am

    I've read Simcha Fisher and I've read your rebuttal. Is the only acceptable Mass a Mass said in Latin? And if so, why?

  6. Joseph Shaw5:57 am

    Neither she nor I are addressing the question of liturgical language or form. The question raised of 'bad liturgy' is a broader one.

  7. Elizabeth8:39 am

    Thank you for this article; it exactly expresses (but much better than I could have) my objection to Ms. Fisher's piece. I am a recent graduate with a low-paying job and no car - I have no choice but to go to the NO in my town as I can't get to a TLM. Every week, an army of extraordinary ministers troop up to the sanctuary and put on robes while the priest does the consecration. These ministers give blessings to those who come up at communion but cannot receive! If you didn't know what the Mass is about, you would think the extraordinary ministers were the primary actors in the sacrament, such is the spectacle they provoide each week! The songs that accompany are literally the same songs I used to sing when I was a Protestant - in America, it was even the same hymn book. Clearly, it isn't appropriate to sing songs that are full of Protestant theology at Mass. Of course in these Masses, there is almost 100 percent reception of communion,which as one priest said, means either we're almost 100 percent saints or we have a lot of sacriligious communion going on. In the large parish (at least 2000 families), there is never a line for confession and the Eucharistic Adoration rota is always 80 percent empty. I guess, it seems to me that Ms Fisher missed a key point - where there is ugly liturgy, there is often unsound doctrine. I definitely do not blame those who are helping out as best they can, by singing those awful hymns or being extraordinary ministers - they are trying and they are good people with good intentions. But that doesn't mean I don't feel lost in a liturgical and devotional wasteland (no frequent Eucharistic Adoration, no regular Rosary, etc) and wish desperately I could find transport or money for a train ticket to make it to the nearest FSSP mass! We shouldn't accept this, we should charitably try to make it better, although that task seems terribly difficult.