ON THE SACRED LITURGY
SOLEMNLY PROMULGATED BY
POPE PAUL VI
ON DECEMBER 4, 1963
40. In some places and circumstances, however, an even more radical adaptation of the liturgy is needed, and this entails greater difficulties. Wherefore:
1) The competent territorial ecclesiastical authority mentioned in Art. 22, 2, must, in this matter, carefully and prudently consider which elements from the traditions and culture of individual peoples might appropriately be admitted into divine worship. Adaptations which are judged to be useful or necessary should then be submitted to the Apostolic See, by whose consent they may be introduced.
2) To ensure that adaptations may be made with all the circumspection which they demand, the Apostolic See will grant power to this same territorial ecclesiastical authority to permit and to direct, as the case requires, the necessary preliminary experiments over a determined period of time among certain groups suited for the purpose.
3) Because liturgical laws often involve special difficulties with respect to adaptation, particularly in mission lands, men who are experts in these matters must be employed to formulate them.
When you are entrusted with preaching the Gospel to all the nations, how far can you adapt to local custom to make your point without “selling the farm,” as the saying goes? If you have taken basic philosophy in college, or are current in the literature, you have some exposure to the expanding interest in linguistics and signs in the communications of ideas. The modern father of linguistic philosophy is Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951); in a letter to fellow philosopher Bertrand Russell, Wittgenstein wrote: "The main point is the theory of what can be expressed…by propositions—i.e. by language—and, which comes to the same thing, what can be thought and what cannot be expressed by propositions, but only shown; which, I believe, is the cardinal problem of philosophy." Put another way, some realities can be expressed in words and propositions, some only in other mediums, and the search for the elusive connector is maddening.
If it was maddening for the early twentieth century Wittgenstein, it has been equally so for the Catholic Church, harder for some parts than others. Catholicism has wrestled with this issue of communicating with new cultures from its earliest days. Last Thursday’s Reformation post highlights the misunderstanding (doctrinal and otherwise) between the Latin West and the Greek East. In reading para. 40, one is reminded of many clashes of faith and culture. The methodology of mission work in more recent centuries, for example, was often the reshaping of a culture to the worship model of Rome, an intact Catholic culture of faith and morals transplanted into a new place. The classic film “The African Queen” (1951) opens with a vivid portrayal of a British Methodist missionary, played by Robert Morley, trying to conduct a typical English Sunday service, pump organ and “Rock of Ages” in full form, to a rather primitive tribe in the African jungle on the eve of World War I. [I have a six-minute clip here from Netflix.]
Other Christian missionaries were more accommodating. Around the time of the Reformation, the Jesuit Order, specifically Matteo Ricci, who served the Chinese mission in the years 1584-1610, approached missionary work with Chinese leaders and intellectuals in a collaborative way. In its biography of Ricci, Wikipedia states that “Chinese culture was strongly intertwined with Confucian values and therefore [Ricci] decided to use existing Chinese concepts to explain Christianity. He did not explain the Catholic faith as entirely foreign or new; instead, he said that the Chinese culture and people always believed in God and that Christianity is simply the completion of their faith. He borrowed an unusual Chinese term…[meaning] ‘Lord of Heaven’ to describe the God of Abraham, despite the term's origin in traditional Chinese worship of Heaven. He also cited many synonyms from the Confucian Classics.”
Ricci’s methods disturbed the Franciscan and Dominican missionaries, who reported his work to Rome. After some years the “Chinese Rites Controversy” ended Ricci’s approach, after his death, but thoughtful churchmen never forgot this paradigm, nor the inherent dangers in the marriage of proselytizing and colonializing. Unfortunately, their thought did not carry the day given the Church’s defensive posturing against seizure of the papal states and the various brands of Protestant theology. Catholic Missionary work entailed the acceptance of the propositions and the Roman culture. John Jay, the colonial representative to Spain during the American Revolution, remarked that the three worst things about Spain were the flies, bull-fighting, and the Inquisition. His fellow ambassador John Adams, on the other hand, was talked into attending the reception of a French postulant into a women’s’ contemplative religious order, a rite he found intriguing. Both Jay and Adams, free-thinking Protestants advocating the rights of man, both found Catholicism an “out-of-culture” experience, regardless of their visceral reactions to its rites.
Sacrosanctum Concilium was promulgated in 1963, and para. 40 was cobbled together before the debate and promulgation of Dignitatis Humanae (1965), whose full English title reads “Declaration on Religious Freedom: On the Right of the Person and of Communities to Social and Civil Freedom in Matters Religious.” DH is a classic example of culture impacting the Church; it laid to rest for the last time the deeply held Church contention that religious error [non-Catholic tenets] enjoyed no rights in civil society. DH also contributed to the demise of another aging belief still maintained by some, that the only true and legitimate form of government is a Roman Catholic theocracy. [There are blogsites today that still advocate for the old belief.]
Both Vatican II documents have been helpful in correcting troublesome issues of past missionary or evangelizing work in the Church. But the Council only dimly conceived of what the present-day Church might look like, notably Western Europe and the United States. Every now and then I get a slap in the face regarding the changes in my own lifetime. Last night my wife and I attended a diocesan charity banquet held in the social hall of one of our flagship parishes in the diocese. We planned to attend the Vigil Mass first, and I was worried about finding parking, so we left early and arrived in time to get a choice spot for both events.
Parking was not a problem. That turned out to be the problem. As the minutes ticked down for Mass, I was stunned—there is no other word—at the small attendance. Margaret turned to me at some point and asked, “Are you sure this is the right church for the dinner?” Unfortunately, we had to proceed over to the dinner after Mass, so we did not have any privacy to process what we had seen, which included the total absence of minors at the Eucharist. When we did finally have a chance to talk, we concurred—the Church is in big trouble.
After World War II, when the French bishops became alarmed over declining attendance, permission was given for a cluster of priests to be relieved of parochial duties and take jobs with the angry long-shore men. The hope was to discover the root of the anger and the spiritual hungers and moods who had left the Church, and use this information in new ministries of outreach. Many in France had concluded that their country, known over the centuries as “the Daughter of the Church,” was mission country in the truest sense after the World Wars. Pope Pius XII put an end to the project in 1955, one reason being his concern about the priests’ growing sympathy with socialist causes. Pius’ action here convinced remaining French Catholics that the Church had no interest in conversation with the blue collar/laborer segment of the country’s society, and further alienated those who had remained faithful.
The emptying churches of the United States do worry American bishops, but generally they are loathe to make their concerns public. Moreover, the bishops do not want to know why church attendance and membership is down, because such knowledge, if made public, would force them to experiment—to change the public face of the Church, really—in ways they are not prepared to go. The easy answer is to place the blame on the laity—present and particularly past members—who are seen as disobedient or unwilling to listen. Dialogue is a two-way process, though, and some bishops are “stiff-necked, too. Some of the pastoral initiatives of Pope Francis, for example, seem to some churchmen as a “sell-out” of the Church.
How the Church evangelizes in the years to come—and the measure of success it will achieve—will depend upon discovering Wittgenstein’s lost key to communicating the linguistics of Gospel ideal with the visible reality of Catholic life.