The Sarabite: Towards an Aesthetic Christianity

There is a continuous attraction, beginning with God, going to the world, and ending at last with God, an attraction which returns to the same place where it began as though in a kind of circle. -Marsilio Ficino

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Reconstructing Roman Catholicism

A Tale of Three Blogs

It has been my contention for some time now that what is going on in the Roman Catholic Church is not reform but destruction. Even if all of the doctrines on the books continue to be the same as before the Second Vatican Council, the practice and atmosphere of the church is slowly mutating into something strange and different. As I have noted previously, many aspects of the traditional Christian and apostolic traditions of the West have either been dismissed as minutiae or consigned to the rubbish bin of history. Historical consciousness becomes an excuse to uproot and change, "reform" and destroy according to the fashions and wills of so called "experts". These technocrats are able find fault with everything from church architechture to traditional piety to sacramental praxis, and propose changes according to the latest theological fad of academia.

Such criticisms against this are not new, and they are formulated by a small minority in the Church known as traditionalists. Often, however, this so-called traditionalist rhetoric is embedded in its own positivist and authoritarian narratives of what the past was like and how the present should be. It is not enough to preserve in some sense the forms used in the past. One must go deeper, into the very foundations of these practices that were dismissed as medieval, baroque, and decadent. Traditionalism, as it has appeared as a movement since the 1960's, is not radical enough, in the sense that "radix" in Latin means the root of living things. Traditionalism tends to ossify liturgy, theology, and the Catholic ethos into an agenda that did not exist prior to the changes. In this post, I want to feature three distinct voices that characterize true meditations on what it means to be a Christian in the West in the 21 st century: Roman, Catholic and Apostolic. These voices not only analyze doctrine, but go to the root of art, literature, and culture to find a new way of adressing the question: Is it possible to be a true Roman Catholic in postmodernity?

1. The Undercroft:

Here is something that has tantalised and fascinated me for years: “orthodoxy” is not, in the first instance, “right belief” at all – but “right glory”. That’s what the Greek words mean. Of course a modern Greek will also understand “orthodoxy” in the sense more familiar to us; but when the choir chants Doxa Soi Kyrie, doxa Soi, he certainly doesn’t hear Doctrine to Thee, O Lord, doctrine to Thee....

Correct doctrine is fundamentally important – but the manner in which we aquire and maintain it is more important still. Just as we know and love our mother as a consequence of living intimacy with her, so our sensus fidei, our instinctive “feeling for the faith” develops as we meet and live with Our Lord in His Church, and especially as together we follow Him, fasting and feasting, from cradle to Cross and beyond, in the Liturgy. “The Church is Jesus extended in time and space in the souls of those united to him.”


This particular voice is very much aware of the challenge that the continued authentic witness of the Christian East presents for us Western Christians. Without throwing out or questioning the glorious project of Western Christendom, the Undercroft seeks to create an "Orthodox" ethos within the Catholic Church. True, like all of those I will mention here, this voice is one crying out in the wilderness. But I know that the blogger involved has also claimed the title of "unorthodox Lefebvrist" as a sort of working construct meant more to shock than to explain. For it seeks to bind real Christianity not just to magisterial pronouncements or abstract theories, but rather to the witness of the Faith as it has been passed down to us until quite recently.

2. The Lion and the Cardinal

This is contrary to the usual presentation of art-historical development as a succession of distinct but equally valid styles, from Byzantine to Romanesque to Gothic to Renaissance to Baroque. The usual presentation is the result of looking at art in a very superficial way, noticing only incidental changes in technique. What becomes increasingly obvious from a more intense study of mediaeval artistic traditions is that whether Byzantine or Celtic or Mozarabic or Carlovingian, they share a continuity in their manner of composition, despite existing in vastly cultures over a thousand years. This is because they were informed by the same apostolic principles. Gothic art, like other products of the high middle ages, attempted to give a comprehensive form to earlier thought. A Gothic church is an encyclopaedia of patristic thought in stone.


One of the most creative and fertile spots of lived theology on the Internet, Mr. Mitsui is formulating a new perspective on how to approach the life of the Western Church of the past thousand years. Being himself an artist, he continues to present the patrimony of the aesthetic of the Western Church in everything from altars to clocks. On occasion, he will present extended theological commentaries where his symphonic knowledge of Patristics, art, and culture approach theological problems from a new and exciting light. Not satisfied with addressing the problems of the Church in an analytical fashion, he shows rather than tells what the true tradition of the Western Church really is.

3. Go Sit In the Corner

My eyes light up like a kid's at Christmas when I see the words "Promises to those who say this prayer" next to the text itself. I think we Catholics salivate over those “say this prayer (this way) and (such-and-such) will happen” the way others must pick out their lottery numbers for the jackpot. But it's not really that it's works-based - it's how we know that [the saints] are holding our hands. In the same way someone is just an acquaintance until they give you a true gift, a sincere gift from their heart. It's how God and the saints become our intimates. Besides, I'm sure God knows we're human.....

I hate when Catholics label themselves as traditionalist or neo or liberal or rad or whatever else, as if the Church is a political party and there are certain planks that define your position. For Heaven’s sake, if you are Catholic and feel you MUST label yourself, at least choose something that makes spiritual sense - something resonates with the rhythm of your heart and the melody of your soul. Say, “I’m in the beat of the Carmelites, to the melody of St. Teresa of Avila” or "I move to the rhythm of the Redemptorists, to St Gerard Majella's resounding baritone." Otherwise, you’re just talking about the ideas that bind your mind. (And the debate between Thomists and Molinists cannot slide in this way).


Perhaps the most eccentric and clever of all of the blogs cited, the dynamic voice presented here takes the blogger's own extended reading and life experience to create a thouroughly modern yet traditional perspective of Catholic life in the 21st century. While highly read in theology, this blog takes a different approach, meditating on Catholic tradition from the perspective of beauty and taking traditions at face value as they have been experienced. This blog treats Catholicism as a living, breathing organism and not a theoretical construct, perfectly at home with the highest aesthetic and theoretical perspectives of our time.

These three blogs are the reason that I am still a Roman Catholic. They are lights in a polemical, rationalistic, and positivist darkness. And I think that I can summarize the concerns of all of them as the following: it is not that the Church has to be reformed, it has to be reconstructed. That means going to the foundations and not just to doctrinal minutiae, to life and not just to questions of ecclesiatical power. It means not just restoring traditions, but venerating them and coming up with a theological construct to justify them in light of the Incarnation. And it means engaging the world we are in now, not to dominate or surrender to it, but rather to struggle with it critically, avoiding both the pitfalls of paleo-traditionalism and overly optimistic modernism. That is the task, and these voices are crying out for us to take up again the banner of a radical Roman Catholicism .


At 7:30 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am reminded of the words of the late Jarislaw Pelikan: "tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living".

At 2:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


The central problem I see is that the existence of this particular brand, if you will, of Roman Catholicism exists on these four blogs. It is a very small internet parish. There is no, or at least very little, practical, liturgical, expression of it. I know; I've searched. I don't see this particular problem in Orthodoxy, and I believe this particular problem is one very very big problem.


At 7:45 PM, Blogger Peter said...

I agree with Jack. I often feel a little schizophernic in this Church. I am in love with the Traditional Rite and the popular piety and aesthetics of Traditional Catholicism, yet so distant from and cramped by so much of "traditionalism" so called. I want both truth and beauty and tradition but without the rigidity that so often goes along with it. Where is it to be found? I guess we must begin to build it, in ourselves, our families, and parishes.

At 7:52 PM, Blogger Peter said...

Just one more quick comment. I think I find some of my longings met in the charism of some of the new movements ie. Communion and Liberation and Schoenstatt. I am not involved in either one, but am currently learning more about the Schoenstatt movement. It has been good.

At 8:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Triple post!

Arturo, I thought you might like this site. It has some stuff about Schoenstatt. I am a typical monolingual American and can't make out much on this website as it is all in Spanish.


At 8:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Damn the link didn't paste.

At 9:07 AM, Blogger Arturo Vasquez said...

Thanks for the link.

Good things often start small.

At 2:35 PM, Blogger Anaxagoras said...

I have to agree with Jack. When the overarching spirit of the Roman Catholic Church becomes the same as what is voiced by these three bloggers (actually 4, 'cause I'm counting you too), know that I will definitely jump ship and go to Rome. I don't expect that to happen soon, and that is not something that makes me happy. It is actually very sad. God knows it would be easier for a Hispanic man living in Florida to be Catholic and feel as if his relgion was actually in step with his culture.

Until then, I must be true to what I've seen and what I know. I can't pray in a Roman church... it just doesn't come to me. Forgive me for saying it, all of you, but there is only one place where I feel warm, breathing, non-forced tradition being lived out in a way that is not reconstructionist or reactionary- that place is an Orthodox liturgy. I hope there are less people like me and more people like you guys to animate the Roman Church to the greatness that it should be.


P.S. I speak Spanish fluently and I looked at the Schoenstatt website. It is nothing new. Just look at the "cancionero" section and check out the protestant "happy feely" praise and worship songs. *Sigh*

At 11:08 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"When the overarching spirit of the Roman Catholic Church becomes the same as what is voiced by these three bloggers ... I will definitely jump ship and go to Rome."

If this ever did happen, then the Church of Rome would be pretty close to being Orthodox, and its Bishop would be able to preside in honour again as primus inter pares

At 2:12 PM, Blogger Arturo Vasquez said...

Alright, you Orthodox, prepare yourselves, because something is coming.....


(Evil maniacal laugh)

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