Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Comparing liturgies: the standards of judgment are objective

A common response to the question of the relative superiority or inferiority of the new or old Mass is to couch the question in terms of preference. This is to utterly skew the issue, recasting the debate in the framework of subjective perceptions rather than objective properties.

The same thing happens in aesthetics, when concepts like "expressiveness" are cast in terms of subjective perceptions, as in the Evocation Theory of 'expressiveness', which supposes that what is expressed depends on subjective perceptions. Thus a song is said to be "expressive" of meloncholy if it evokes meloncholy feelings in me. But this is nonsense, as Nicholas Wolterstorff argues in his book, Art in Action. If one looks at two lines -- the first a jagged line, the second an undulating one -- and say the first is expressive of "restlessness" and the second of "restfulness," is it because I am plunged alternately into subjective feelings of restlessness and restfulness? Of course not: and whether it did or not would be irrelevant. A jagged line's expressivness of restlessness or restfulness is based on objective properties of the lines which are objectively fitting with respect to these feelings, but not dependent on an actual evocation of these subjective feelings. Even if one felt tranquil while looking at the jagged line, the line would still be expressive of "restlessness." That's why a person can sometimes fail to perceive the objective qualities that are actually there.

The same is true with the comparative question of the new Mass or old Mass. Therefore, the question ought not to be primarily, "How does it make you FEEL?" but rather: "What objective qualities are expressed by the Mass?" The latter are objectively grounded in measurable qualities and properties of the Mass itself. On that basis, the symbolism of the new Mass is confused and radically inferior to the old. Sacrosanctum Concilium, though itself far from being a perfectly clear document, was never properly implemented.

Accordingly, the question of the relative superiority of one liturgy over another cannot properly be settled in terms of whether it makes one feels involved or detached, interested or bored, joyful or sorrowful. That would be like supposing that one should make one's decision about engaging someone in marriage based primarily on how one happens to feel in the person's presence, when the more important question is objectively what kind of person this is. Likewise with litugy: the question needs to be settled in terms of objective properties of the rite and ritual itself. Are the majesty of God, the holiness of His Sacrifice, the divinity of His Presence on the Altar expressed by the Mass? And here, remember, we're not talking primarily about how one feels but about qualities in the rite and ritual itself.

Even the question of the quality of "participation" cannot be properly adjudicated by how "involved" one happens to feel, as important as that question may be. Rather, first of all, it must be a question of how the rite and ritual objectively elicit the congregation's participation by elevating those present to the contemplation of those aforemention qualities of divine majesty, holiness, and Presence in the Sacrifice of the Mass. This isn't something principally dependent upon how successful a liturgy is in actually producing these perceptions in a given congregation. A congregation of liturgical philistines may lack the religious sensibilities to perceive what is properly there. Just as in art, one has to learn what to look for, to be properly habituated to the sensibilities appropriate to what is expressed in the Mass. The standards are objective.

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