Back to the Future
by Dwight Longenecker
After living in England for twenty five years, I returned to my native country in 2006. I had never lived in America as a Catholic, and learning about the American Catholic Church has put me on a steep learning curve.
Coming from outside, I have several strong impressions of the American Church at the beginning of the twenty first century. These impressions are, I admit, generalizations, but generalizations often illuminate the big picture.
First of all, the American Catholic Church is big, rich and powerful. Compared to the marginalized Catholic Church in England, American Catholicism is a global force to be reckoned with. Time magazine, in a recent feature on the Pope's visit, recognizes that Benedict XVI understands and is intrigued by the fact that America is at once 'totally modern, yet totally religious' in it's world view.
Secondly, the American Catholic Church is highly polarized. On one extreme are the ‘rad traddies’. They argue for the Latin Mass and support schismatic groups opposed to modernism in the Church. These radical traditionalists want to turn back the clock to some golden age before the Second Vatican Council. They live in a black and white world where everyone outside their group are damnable modernists. They come across as angry, self righteous, kooks.
At the other end of the spectrum are the ‘rad trendies’. These ‘Spirit of Vatican 2’ Catholics mistake every politically correct cause for the teaching of the Catholic faith. They seem oblivious to any traditional aspects of Catholicism, and feel compelled to re-invent the faith according to the latest ideas of popular culture. With their liturgical dance, ecology stations of the cross and encouragement of sexual ‘diversity’, they come across as wounded, angry victims who, like their opposite numbers, seem to be self righteous, kooks.
In between the extremes of ‘rad traddies’ and ‘rad trendies’ are the largest group of what my friends refer to as ‘AmChurch.’ These bishops, clergy and laity do not take particularly radical views either in the traddy or trendy directions. Instead they follow a bland, comfortable kind of American Catholicism with a mix of traditional devotions, parish social events, mediocre modern music and social action.
Moving here from England, this in between ‘AmChurch’ seems cut off from any real sense of the historical and cultural continuity of the Catholic faith. In a country cut off geographically from the rest of the world, AmChurch Catholics also seem cut off from the traditions of the Catholic faith which could give their faith depth and universality.
At the end of the nineteenth century the Catholic Church was highly suspicious of all things America, and even coined a name for a new heresy called 'Americanism.' Pope Leo XIII’s analysis does ring true: In his 1899 encyclical, Testem benevolentiae nostrae, Leo criticized Catholics who, “in order to more easily attract those who differ from her” would, “…shape her teachings more in accord with the spirit of the age and relax some of her ancient severity and make some concessions to new opinions.” This pretty much sums up the problem of AmChurch. It reveals the extreme position of the ‘rad trendies’, the extreme reaction against the problem evidenced by the ‘rad traddies’ and the mushy situation of most in between Catholics in AmChurch.
The answer to the problem is the present Pope’s emphasis on the “hermeneutic of continuity”. It’s a splendid sounding phrase, but what does it mean? “Hermeneutic” refers to a perspective, a way of looking at things, a method of interpretation. A "hermeneutic of continuity," then, means that the past informs the present and guides us into the future. Benedict wishes our understanding of the Catholic faith to be guided by that continuity.
Pope Benedict’s philosophy is evident throughout his actions and teachings. On his Wednesday public audiences he began by expounding on the Gospel, and then went through the lives and personalities of the apostles; now he is continuing through the ages to pick out and explicate the teachings of the great saints and doctors of the Church.
By his teaching, the pope is asserting that the faith Catholics practice today is the faith they have had through the ages, a faith that makes no sense unless it's viewed through the lens of the past. Furthermore, we cannot march into the future unless we are informed and enlightened and inspired by the past. Continuity is therefore a dynamic concept; it is another way to talk about the role of Tradition in the Catholic Church. Tradition is not a dead letter, but a living Word.
This hermeneutic also informs Benedict's approach to the liturgy. In his seminal work The Spirit of the Liturgy, then-Cardinal Ratzinger argued that the purpose and aim of liturgy is not primarily to develop human relationships, be creative in worship, and promote humanitarian agendas. Rather, the liturgy is the worship of God. The forms and styles are given to us by the Church of the ages, and the bishops and clergy are not innovators but custodians and stewards of the inheritance they have been given.
This explains Benedict's ruling granting more freedom for the celebration of Mass according to the pre-Vatican II Latin Rite, and his encouragement of Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony. These moves are not an attempt to impose the preconciliar rite and archaic forms of music on the whole church; rather, new freedoms were given so that traditional forms of worship might be celebrated more openly and widely, priests would be trained in the older forms so that contemporary worship might be properly informed and deepened by the tradition.
By paying attention to Pope Benedict’s underlying philosophy, the American Church will be able to move forward into the twenty-first century with confidence and balance. A proper understanding of the hermeneutic of continuity does not reject the advances of the Second Vatican Council in some vain attempt to turn back the clock, instead it helps correct the abuses that arose from that council.
If American Catholics can stop and listen closely and follow Benedict’s lead, the ‘rad traddies’ will have confidence to take their place in the mainstream, the ‘rad trendies’ will root their contemporary concerns in the historic rule and practice of the Church, and all the in between Catholics will re-discover the great traditions of the Church; traditions which nurture a positive and dynamic link between American Catholicism and the Church of the Ages.
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Rev. Dwight Longenecker was ordained through the Pastoral Provision in December 2006 and serves as chaplain to St. Joseph’s Catholic School in Greenville, South Carolina, and as weekend assistant in the parish of St. Mary’s, Greenville. He is the author of ten books on conversion and the Catholic Faith. Check his website
to discover more about his articles and books. This article first appeared in Crisis Magazine
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