Saturday, April 06, 2013

Liturgical wisdom and wit of George Weigel

Not every book George Weigel writes is on a subject above his pay grade. He is, in fact, a very good writer, often well-researched, and sometimes very clever. The first book of his I read was Tranquillitas Ordinis: The Present Failure and Future Promise of American Catholic Thought on War and Peace(New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), which I thought very good -- excellent, in fact; and I have read many articles by him since, first in the pages of Crisis Magazine, when it was still a print magazine, and then in First Things and National Review, which fairly impressed me.

The book in question here, however, is entitled Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church(New York: Basic Books, 2013), and my first reaction before reading the book is to ask myself, Now what in the blazes is that supposed to mean: Evangelical Catholicism? Is this yet another attempt to re-invent the proverbial wheel? or to produce a fast-food version of the Real Thing called McCatholicism or something?

Whatever it is, if George Weigel has produced it, you can be sure that it has the corporation's brand name and seal of approval on it. He would see to that. The man is well-connected (Just read his biography). In the retrospective issue of First Things after the death of Fr. Neuhaus, there were photos in which you could see the young Weigel together with Neuhaus, with William F. Buckley, and a host of other major movers and shakers. He wrote a massive biography of Pope John Paul II, and, of course, he is also (let me pause just a moment here while I clear my throat) Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

But I digress ... Here, of course, our concern is liturgy, and the following is a taste of what Weigel suggests Evangelical Catholicism envisions by "Deep Reform" in the liturgy, which comes in a secion entitled "Reform, Not Nostalgia" of Chapter 7, "The Evangelical Catholic Reform of the Liturgy":
The reform of the Church's liturgy in Evangelical Catholicism is emphatically not an exercise in nostalgia: nor does it begin from the premise that the Novus Ordo of Pope Paul VI--the form of the Roman Rite developed by the Concilium for the implementation of Vatican II's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy--was a serious mistake. There were certainly grave mistakes in the implementation of the Novus Ordo liturgy. Thus Evangelical Catholicism welcomes the revival of the Missal of 1962 (the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite) for its capacity to inspire a more dignified celebration of the Novus Ordo. But the evangelical Catholic liturgical renewal of the twenty-first century will be built from the Novus Ordo, particularly as embodied in the Third Edition of the Roman Missal, not from a return to the preconciliar liturgy.

For a small minority of Catholics, the Missal of 1962 offers a way of prayer most conducive to the worship they seek to offer. For the overwhelming majority of Catholics, however, the reform of the reform will be an ongoing reform of the Novus Ordo as outlined above. That reform will be retarded, not advanced, by exercises in liturgical nostalgia that, by seeking to re-create an imagined past (which is, in truth, barely recognizable as the 'past' that Catholics who lived in the 1950s would recognize), fail to set an appropriate course for the future. This kind of ill-informed nostalgia cannot contribute to the development of Evangelical Catholicism in the twenty-first century; the reform of the reform of the liturgy will not be advanced by a return to the use of the maniple, or by the widespread revival of fiddleback chasubles, or by a proliferation of lace surplices and albs, or by other exercises in retro-liturgy.
(p. 168)
The end of this sentence carries an endnote. As I said, Weigel is very clever; and his pièce de résistance comes in this endnote (n. 11, p. 274). He writes with delicious (but undoubtedly altogether charitable and not the least bit malicious) irony:
How anyone can imagine that the abundant use of lace in liturgical vestments advances the reform of the priesthood as a manly vocation is one of the minor mysteries of early twenty-first century Catholic life.
There is so much Weigel get's wrong here that many contemporary Catholics are simply clueless about, it will be fun to see who wins at the carnival game of throwing the ball that hits its target, releasing the victim into the barrel of cold water. Like I said, he's one clever cookie. Happy aiming. Enjoy yourselves, but be charitable.

[Hat tip to E. Echeverria]

Update: ... and sometimes it appears that even Francis agrees with Pope George.


JM said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
JM said...

I was inclined to like this book, given its aim. But I put it down more than a little surprised at its emphasis on programatic change mandated by the Church machinery versus revival. I realize is sort of unfair to Weigel, who would not juxtapose the two; nevertheless, it reminded me far too much of the endless stream of Vatican statements and post-Conciliar docs that somewhere amidst the verbosity say the right things but are smothered in bureaucratic trappings. The actual phrase "Evangelical Catholicism" must have been used a million times in the course of these pages, and I found his prose, for such a topic, far too dry. Weigel has indeed written great stuff: I think he is far more effective in column format. As for gays and lace, I have to admit I think he scored a rhetorical hit. I'd rather have a straight and sparse Franciscan than a lavender priest with a perfect liturgy and to-die for sanctuary. But again, such a juxtaposition is hopefully unnecessary, and if we want to talk about redressing the effeminate imbalances in parishes the music programs would be just as necessary a place to start.

Anonymous Bosch said...

As PP says, there is so much wrong with Weigel's philistine remarks that it's hard to know where to start. So I'll just jump in.

Unless Weigel is a complete ignoramus, which is hard to believe, he must know that the majority of those attending the Traditional Latin Mass these days haven't the foggiest memory of the preconciliar days because they're all younger than he is, which means he's very possibly lying in his references to "liturgical nostalgia," because he knows what plays well to audiences. He's like those debaters who will stoop to using arguments they know are effective even if they are based on complete distortions and falsehoods.

Think about this: his repeated efforts to highlight what he believes divides the preconciliar from the postconciliar era, including the title of his book, which suggests a new name brand of "Evangelical" Catholicism, plays right into the hands of those on both the right and the left who buy into what Benedict called a "hermeneutic of rupture." But it's not only the right and the left that are now buying into that, but also John Paul II Neo-Caths, which is a damn pity.

But back to Weigel's mendacity. He knows his comments about maniples, fiddleback chasubles, and lace surplices and albs will bring hoots from nearly everyone (from charismatics to Neo-Caths to Call-to-Action and Women Church dissenters on the left). But what does this philistine know about the development of the Traditional Latin right anyway, much less the symbolism of the maniple? He doesn't know and doesn't care. All that matters for the Church was born for him in the 1960s. His view of everything before is very nearly Protestant.

Finally, he refers to the "ill-informed nostalgia" of those taken up with this "retro-liturgy." "Retro-liturgy"? The liturgy whose canon was developed by Gregory the Great and evolved organically with only modest changes until the revolution of 1969, the liturgy that sustained generations of saints including those in the Canon, and Augustine, Anselm, Dominic, Francis, and St. Thomas Aquinas, the liturgy to which Chesterton, Newman, Maritain and thousands converted over the years, a "retro-liturgy"?

And "ill-informed nostalgia"? Most of the criticisms levelled against the Novus Ordo have not been on aesthetic grounds, although there is enough there to sink a ship, but on theological grounds. Anthony Cekada's critical study, Work of Human Hands: A Theological Critique of the Mass of Paul VI, is utterly devastating, and the well-known non-traditionalist, Alcuin Reid, has reviewed it favorably on Amazon, saying "It's time to do something about the elephant in the liturgical living-room."

In light of this, Weigel's tired old admission that there were "certainly grave mistakes in the implementation" of the Novus Ordo, but that the liturgy itself is perfectly above criticism, is utterly disingenuous.

Mike said...

I was born in 1961. I now and then attend the TLM at St. John's parish, in Mclean, VA.

It's sacred beauty that leads you to heaven.

If you were not alive back in those day to "remember when", it's not nostalgia, George.

Charles said...

I wonder whether Weigel has ever assisted at a TLM, or, if he has, whether he ever turned off his sceptical condescension long enough to enter into the worship of God.

The business about lace seems completely out-of-line, even if it scores points with scoffers in his corner. It's like NCR editors comparing Pope Francis' humility to Benedict's "Prada shoes." It misses the point.

What is to the point, however, is that parishes where the EF liturgy is offered are producing steady priestly vocations (and I'm not referring to the SSPX here, although it's vocations are a bull market), and that they are never hurting for dozens and dozens of male alter servers.

In fact, in the EF parishes with which I am familiar, the priest holds an annual retreat for the altar servers, where, in one instance, they not only learn the relatively demanding regimen of serving at the EF Mass, including the Latin responses and intricate choreography of movements involved, but also spend parts of several days polishing the brass and various other implements in silence!

If you want manly vocations, forget about trying to re-make our faith into something easy-going and chummy like your slap-happy Novus Ordo liturgies, and offer young men a challenge worth sacrificing and disciplining themselves for. What will not escape the mind of a young altar server assisting in the EF liturgy is the immediate awareness that he is in the presence of Almighty God who deserves reverence, something sorely missing in most suburban Catholic churches of the last half-century.

I am not Spartacus said...

Beware of men like Mr. Weigel. Were he a Catholic Traditionalist, he'd never be allowed to write for First Things

++++++ Begin Quotes +++++++++
To begin with, Richard John Neuhaus founded First Things in response to Jewish concern about the rise of Pat Buchanan and paleoconservatism...

Pat Buchanan was the Ahmadinejad of his day. He was the revenant of Father Coughlin, Henry Ford, and Charles Lindbergh all rolled up into one. He was the most significant threat to Jewish hegemony over American culture since America First, and Ginsberg’s description of him shows how dire the threat seemed to American Jews as of 1993:
After a long hiatus, anti-Semitism has once again become a significant phenomenon on the political right. The most noteworthy expression was, of course, Pat Buchanan’s charge that the Persian Gulf war was promoted by the Israeli Defense Ministry and its “amen corner” in the United States and his subsequent description of Congress as “Israeli-occupied” territory.
Richard John Neuhaus’s patrons Midge Decter and Norman Podhoretz were every bit as concerned about the Pat Buchanan phenomenon and paleoconservatism as Benjamin Ginsberg. Seeing an opportunity, Neuhaus became a double agent. While still working as editor of the Rockford Institute’s Religion and Society newsletter, Neuhaus was undermining the institution which published it, referring to the Rockford Institute as located in “the fever swamps” of intellectual discourse at cocktail parties in Manhattan. Finally, the hostility came out in the open and after a high speed car chase in Manhattan to secure the filing cabinet containing donor names, Neuhaus succeeded in diverting a $250,00 Bradley Foundation grant from Rockford to be used as the founding nest egg for First Things.

Athelstane said...

It's curious, because many of the most manly priests I know tend to use...well, more ornate, or even lacy, vestments.

I agree with you, Phil, that there is much that Weigel is very good on. I spent a summer in his Tertio Millennio Seminar in Krakow some years ago, and had a chance to hear the unguarded Weigel.

But his dismissal of the traditional liturgy is unfortunately deeply ingrained, not least because he - like so many others - reduces the attachment to it to the smells and bells and lace and Latin. The problem is the theological shift in the prayers from the Old Mass to the New - particularly a more anthropocentric orientation, and a very marked deemphasis on the Four Last Things. It's not enough to make the Mass invalid, of course, but it has made the Pauline Missal theologically impoverished in notable ways. And that's in the original Latin of the 197 - it's not just about poor or loose translations.

In the end, Wiegel is very American, and that means that his Catholicism has imbibed not only strong American ideals of religious liberty and neo-conservative foreign policy, but also evangelical low church prejudices against high liturgy. Which is unfortunate, because the theologically richer prayers of the Old Mass, celebrated with lace albs or not, has greater evangelical potential for the winning of souls.

Anonymous Bosch said...

"Exercises in liturgical nostalgia"?

That must refer to the "Forever 1969" crowd that hankers for those Golden Oldies from the days of "Glory and Praise" guitar strummer sing-alongs?

How to foster "... the priesthood as a MANLY vocation?"

That must refer to those liturgies in which geldered priests are surrounded at the altar by bevies of matronly lay "Eucharistic ministers" bustling about as if in their kitchen serving dinner; or maybe it was those parish RCIA programmes run by matronly DRE's whose focus is all on community, belonging, and telling your own story; or, yet again, maybe it was the exhilarating experience of being led in singing the Psalm of the day by that wannabe Diva braying into the microphone, and signaling with raised arm for the recalcitrant pew peasants to join in.

That's it!! Thanks George!! That's something that ought to inspire manly vocations!!!

Ivan K said...

It seems that "evangelical" is just whatever Weigel likes. You think that liturgical vestments are important? Weigel disagrees, therefore you're not evangelical. You believe that the EF should be more than a marginal curiosity? Weigel disagrees with you, therefore you're not evangelical. And so on. See how that works? How fortunate it is that we have Weigel's infallible judgments to guide the Church.

QV said...

I think it is easy to miss the point of Weigel's book. You have to read it (and evaluate it) for what it is. He isn't a theologian, or a dispassionate observer making the best arguments for a case he has arrived at through serious reflection and study. He is nothing more than an advocate: he simply declares triumph for a position that he believes will enable him to retain his power and prestige. All he’s doing is trying to convince the movers and shakers (I mean those with deep pockets) that “Old George” is still the best jockey out there. He put all of his eggs into a very particular basket long ago and he's doing his best to ensure that it doesn’t wind up being a failure. His interpretation of every ecclesiastical event, like the appointment of bishops or the election of a pope, liturgical reform, etc., is always on the same level. Don’t expect him to give an interpretation of anything that isn’t about self-promotion. Only time (and some really suave counter-advocates for traditionalist triumphalism) will tell. Simply put, George is a rhetorician. Is he a good one? Right now, I’d have to say yes.

Ralph Roister-Doister said...

Great point, QV, though I have a somewhat different take. What you call an "advocate" I would call an apparatchik. The difference is that the latter term stresses that the products of his rhetorical powers have, as PP has put it, "the corporation's brand name and seal of approval" behind them. His books, columns, and televised remarks to Little Raymond Arroyo are not important because it is George Weigel thinking them, publicizing them, and offering them for sale. They matter because they tell us where the corporation is headed, and what the thinking is at the managerial level. George is merely a mouthpiece. (By the way, I love the nerviness and traditionalist-baiting of Weigel’s title: also the phrase “deep reform,” which reminds me of “Deep Throat,” Woodward and Bernstein’s clandestine “consultant” within the Nixon administration. Here perhaps is one apparatchik whose elbowrubbing with Rome’s upper echelons has made him even porkier and more full of himself than he seems to be by nature. Hard to imagine).

With Scott Hahn it is much the same story, but with one important difference: at an earlier bullet point on his curriculum vitae, Malt Shop Scotty was a protestant. His facility with scripture (derived from his background as a presbyterian minister) is important only because it now, having been put at the service of the Catholic managerial class, popularizes some of the key thoughts that theological and scriptural nouvelles had decades ago, and which they and their acolytes continue to impose upon us all.

There are many lesser lights who play such roles in the Church, and it is surprising how many of them are converts. Some converts of superior formation, like our pertinacious host, to his great credit, play with a straight deck. Others do not. You can identify the mere apparatchiks by their willingness to participate in the ongoing razing of the bastions, which they dress up and dumb down as "reform", "renewal", "bringing to the philosophia perennis the contribution of our own time", "building the past into the present", or some other specimen of rhetorical condiment.

With true American protestant entrerpreneurial acumen, these in-house consultants (some of them marginally "in-house" at that) seem to operate much as did the periti of the splendiferous council. But that is an illusion. At V2, the periti -- insurgent nouvelles -- most often led the bishops and cardinals by the nose; in the current situation, the bishops and cardinals -- formerly insurgent nouvelles now well-escounced, and their proteges -- hold tight to the reins and continue to impose the gospels of De Lubac, Balthazar, and Rahner upon the credulous faithful. And to further this effort of decades, they cherry pick for skilled mouthpieces, popularizers, and obfuscators -- rhetoricians, if you will -- and lead THEM by the nose. That these latter folks often come a degree or two removed from the ranks of the separated brethren is, in the minds of their employers, a distinct advantage. After all, "Catholic memory" is part of what they are trying to stamp out and reinvent, and to that end a "protestant memory" is almost as good as a frontal lobotomy.

JM said...

"...The problem [with th New Mass] is the theological shift in the prayers from the Old Mass to the New - particularly a more anthropocentric orientation, and a very marked deemphasis on the Four Last Things... And that's in the original Latin of the 197 - it's not just about poor or loose translations... Which is unfortunate, because the theologically richer prayers of the Old Mass, celebrated with lace albs or not, has greater evangelical potential for the winning of souls."

YES. This is the point Traditionalist lose in the rhetoric: it is no primarily about form, though that is signficant. It is about content, theology, message. What is at stake is the Heart of the Gospel. And secondary points are inescapably tied to primary ones.

I am not Spartacus said...

Dear Ralph. Excellent. Many forget, or rather, few know that the Priest Joseph Ratzinger was the expert who wrote the text attacking The Holy Office which was read as an intervention at V2 by Joseph Cardinal Frings.

It prolly was not helpful to the Catholic Church that such a man was elected Pope.

In any event, we are always being told Sentire cum Ecclesia is an identifying marker of the real Catholic but that is a reminder that is in service to the supersessionism of the new theology whereas the truth is Sentire cum Ecclesia refers to the entire existence os Holy Mother Church not just the past century or so

Pertinacious Papist said...


You raise an important distinction about form and matter, regarding which I still have unresolved questions.

Pope John XXIII in one of his speeches at the Council made a similar distinction, implicitly arguing for the necessity of preserving the matter or content of the Faith while communicating it in modern, newer forms.

On the one hand, I understand how a certain amount of that is inevitable and necessary. When the Jesuits went to Japan, they learned to speak Japanese in order to explain the Faith, even if the Mass remained in Latin.

On the other hand, I'm haunted by Marshell McLuhan's statement that "the medium is the message." There's clearly some truth in that as well. When Life Teen Masses allow kids to throng the altar while chewing gum and wearing jeans and sneakers, that hardly communicates that this Christ being confected on the Altar is the Creator, Redeemer, and Lord of the universe.

Your thoughts?

JM said...


More thoughts coming, but in the meantime, does form matter?

Check this out: to this

I certainly think in this case form DOES communicates. Balloons.... BALLOONS! What in the Hell is wrong with European clerics, anyway? Perhaps I am too North American, flinching as I do at he androgyous clown weirdness of Circus Soleil and the banal realism of much of indie Cinema, but...

As jarring as this is, is there not no better symbol of the idiocy of Post Vatican II liturgics than balloons. Here we have the cheif author of the much esteemed CCC cowering amidst children's birthday antics while in full-on ecclesiastical garb. Reminds me of the rock band Genesis' satanic-seeming MTV video send-up of Reagan back in the 80s. How.... nice.

Pertinacious Papist said...

=) What can you do? If you don't wanna cry, you gotta laugh.

Dark Horse said...

Hey, Georgie boy, how's that Evengelical Catholicism workin for ya? Missions in good shape? CCD classes full? Converts pouring in? All yor relativs, kids, neices and nephews runnin to church to get some o that 'gathr us in' and 'on eagles wings'? Rock solid faith? Or have they caved and stopped geting up for mass like everyone else? Take a chill pill.

Lynne said...

I am a traditionalist (and I vaguely remember the TLM when it was practiced, or at least I remember when the Mass started changing every.single.Sunday). I, like many, drifted away from my faith in the 70's but finally came back in 2005 to the Norvus Ordo. I think within a year, I was seeking the TLM. I came for the "smells and bells" of the TLM and stayed for the theology.

And Scott Hahn gets it, at least a part of it. He realizes that the Old Convenant of the OT ended in Jerusalem in 70 AD and we are the New Convenant and the new Israel. No one has accused him of being anti-semetic yet.

Pertinacious Papist said...


I am struck by your statement that you "came for the 'smells and bells' of the TLM," but "stayed for the theology." Very Significant.

I agree with you about Scott Hahn on recognizing very clearly the difference between the covenants and the Church as the "New Israel." A lot of people who understand this issue censor themselves in order to avoid the politically incorrectness and inconvenience of such language. But this gets it right; which is more than one can say for those who postulate alternate roads to salvation outside of Christ and His Church.

Lynne said...

And one last comment about Scott Hahn. I was listening to a talk given by him on Hell. I don't know when it was recorded, I don't think it was very recent and he specifically said, that there are some (who he didn't name) who believed that many may go to Heaven and Hell wasn't crowded. He disapproved of that and said that they hadn't thought of the consequences of that belief. What consequence does that have on evangelization, he asked?

Pertinacious Papist said...

Hi Lynne,

Those are all good points, I think; not that we can determine the proportion of those in Heaven or Hell by what counts as expedient for Evangelization.

But the recent sentiment favouring a "hopefully empty" hell is simply wishful thinking. It no longer takes seriously the reality and gravity of sin.

If, on the contrary, we understand the gravity of sin, and, hence, the gravity of the cost involved in our salvation, then we, of all people, should be motivated by compassion to Evangelize.

And by "Evangelize," I don't mean having sappy parish programs in which we all get in touch with our inner selves and chart our spiritual journeys, as fun and revealing as that might possibly be.

Rather, I mean the kind of urgency and joy that animated the first Apostles to drop their fishing nets and fan out across the world to preach the Good News of salvation through Christ alone -- the same Gospel that led the martyrs to throw away their lives for love of Christ, and led the original Society of Jesus to venture half-way around the globe to India, China, and Japan to establish new churches and to be instruments for the conversion for thousands of souls.

JM said...

On Sunday I took my father to his MEthodist Church, the one I grew up in. The minister there is quite evidently vintage mainline. He was unremittingly affirming (actually uttering "Isn't THAT cool?!..." and leading the congregation in singing "Happy Birthday" to several people). His sermon reflected what progressives would consider the New Evangelization. He read John 10 about "His Sheep" hearing "His Voice" and inverted it to mean we are all each others shepherds, totally ignoring the reference to those who are NOT His sheep. It was all about community, and being good, and God's unconditional love. But in the face of ugly difficulties, such consolation seems almost entirely emotional, partially comforting but hardly fortifying. The horizontal, "People of God" angle as a primary emphasis will not get us very far, especially with the very compassionate culture we witness evolving. There are lots of supportive communities, but not many redemptive ones. Had to vent.