Compassion is not cynical: a reply to David Bentley Hart on annulment and divorce

In the liberal American Catholic magazine Commonweal, the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart recently argued that Orthodox divorce was more historically and pastorally honest a practice than Catholic annulment. His is a fallacious—yet dangerously specious—article. Here’s my rebuttal.

Bowing the head for saints?

Does your priest bow his head when he says the name of Jesus or of Mary at Mass? Doing so is a fine, reverent tradition; like all such things, it is particularly popular amongst the most hard-working and devoted and popular priests. (Oh how the laity respond when a priest is always ready to talk after Mass, always ready to give blessings and advice and consolation etc.!)

But anyway: it is a good practice. That’s why I was interested to discover today that the General Instruction of the Roman Missal—which is so often unhelpfully vague, so that it’s hard to know best practice without knowing the older rubrics—not only mentions the bowing of heads at the aforementioned Holy Names, but prescribes it. I was even more interested to read that it prescribes the very same bowing at every mention of the name of the saint in whose honour the Mass is celebrated. This latter practice I have never seen anywhere. Perhaps it’s something to revive? Certainly I bowed my head at the name of St Charles Borromeo today, after whom I took my confirmation name!

Here’s the relevant passage (GIRM 275a):

A bow of the head is made when the three Divine Persons are named together and at the names of Jesus, of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and of the Saint in whose honour Mass is being celebrated.

We can also find the practice prescribed by the the old Roman Missal of 1962 (the Missal of the Extraordinary Form), which also tells priests to bow their heads at the Pope’s name (Ritus Servandae in Celebratione Missae chapter V no. 2):

Cum in oratione, vel alibi in Missa, pronuntiatur nomen IESU vel MARIAE, itemque cum exprimitur nomen Sancti vel Beati de quo dicitur Missa aut fit commemoratio, vel Summi Pontificis, sacerdos caput inclinat.

When in the oration, or elsewhere in the Mass, the name of JESUS or MARY is said, or the name of the Saint or Blessed for whom the Mass or commemoration is offered, or the name of the Supreme Pontiff, the priest inclines his head.

Henceforth, I shall always bow as GIRM 275a instructs, and I shall readily explain to priests and others why I am doing so. Please do join me in this!

Nihil videretur obedientia prodesse humilibus, si contemptus contumacibus non obesse

Some weeks ago I suggested that the Church’s failure to excommunicate Governor Cuomo of New York, and other practising Catholic politicians who promote abortion, made it more difficult for the faithful to uphold the Church’s teaching on the topic. Indeed, I might have put this another way: if the Rock of Truth is overgrown with weeds, it is harder to cling to it.

Well, pursuing the old-form* Pontificale Romanum (the book of rites that bishops perform), I find vindication for my view in the rite of major excommunication:

Cum ego N. talem primo, secundo, tertio, et quarto, ad malitiam convincendam, legitime monuerim, ut tale quid faciat, vel non faciat, ipse vero mandatum hujusmodi contempserit adimplere; quia nihil videretur obedientia prodesse humilibus, si contemptus contumacibus non obesset: idcirco auctoritate Dei omnipotentis Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti, et beatorum Apostolorum Petri et Pauli, et omnium Sanctorum, exigente ipsius contumacia, ipsum excommunico in his scriptis, et tamdiu ipsum vitandum denuntio, donec adimpleverit, quod mandatur; ut spiritus ejus in die judicii salvus fiat.

Which means (in suitably solemn and legalistic language):

WHEREAS I N. have now lawfully warned X. for a first, second, third and fourth time that, for the purposes of overcoming his wickedness, he should refrain from doing, or not doing, such-and-such a thing, but he has disdained to fulfil my order to that effect; and whereas obedience would appear to avail little to the humble, if the contempt of the insolent man should do him no harm: therefore, by the authority of God the Almighty, Father, and Son, and Holy Spirit, and of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and of all the saints, I, being forced to action by this man’s obstinacy, do excommunicate him by this decree, and I mark him out as one to be shunned, until such time as he fulfil what I have ordered; in order that his spirit might be safe on the day of judgement.

Well quite!

*As I mentioned in a previous article, the texts of modern liturgical books are usually not available online.

Blessings blessings blessings!

The official blessings of the modern Roman Rite are set out in the Book of Blessings (Latin original: De Benedictionibus) of 1987 (second ed 1990). Unfortunately, as with most modern liturgical books, one can’t access its contents online. However, at https://sanctamissa.org/en/resources/books-1962/rituale-romanum/ , one can access the second section of the 1962 edition of the old Rituale Romanum, the ‘Benedictionale’, which is once again valid thanks to Summorum Pontificum. And pursuing its contents, one finds a rich array of blessings and devotions that have sadly been allowed to lapse. To raise awareness of them, I list them below. If you see one suited to you, ask your priest to do it! (I could be wrong, but I think that these blessings, though given in Latin, may be said in any language; after all, a priest is perfectly entitled to make up a blessing on the spot. The blessing to make holy water, and other quasi-liturgical blessings, may be exceptions to this).

As I understand it most of these blessings can in fact be found in the modern Book of Blessings, though the Rituale versions are a bit grander. To give you a flavour of the Rituale ones as listed below, here is an English translation of the central prayer of the ‘Blessing for an Automobile or other Vehicle’, with its rather nice nod to the Ethiopian of Acts 8 (courtesy of Sancta Missa):

‘Lord God, be well disposed to our prayers, and bless this vehicle with your holy hand. Appoint your holy angels as an escort over it, who will always shield its passengers and keep them safe from accidents. And as once by your deacon, Philip, you bestowed faith and grace upon the Ethiopian seated in his carriage and reading Holy Writ, so also now show the way of salvation to your servants, in order that, strengthened by your grace and ever intent upon good works, they may attain, after all the successes and failures of this life, the certain happiness of everlasting life; through Christ our Lord. All: Amen.

Blessings Available in the Roman Ritual 1962

Blessings for Special Days and Feasts of the Church Year

  • Rite for Providing Holy Water
  • The Sunday Blessing With Holy Water
  • Blessing of Wine (Two Forms)
  • Blessing of Epiphany Water (on the Eve of Epiphany)
  • Blessing of Gold, Incense, Myrrh (on Epiphany)
  • Blessing of Chalk (on Epiphany)
  • Blessing of Homes (on Epiphany)
  • Blessing of Candles (on the Feast of St Blaise)
  • Blessing of Throats (on the Feast of St Blaise)
  • Blessing of Bread, Wine, Water, Fruit for the Relief of Throat Ailments (on the Feast of St Blaise)
  • Blessing of Homes (on Holy Saturday and during Easter)
  • The Easter Blessings of Food
  • Blessing of Crosses which are to be set in vineyards, fields, etc., on or about May 3
  • Blessing of a Bonfire on the Vigil of the Birthday of St. John the Baptist
  • Blessing of Herbs on the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
  • Blessing of Seed and Seedlings on the Birthday of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Blessings of Persons

  • Blessing of an Expectant Mother at the approach of confinement
  • Blessing of a Mother After Childbirth
  • Blessing of a Woman After Childbirth in a case where the child was stillborn or died after birth
  • Blessing of an Infant or Little Child
  • Blessing of a Child
  • Blessing of Children when on some special occasion they are assembled in church for this purpose
  • Blessing of Children on Feastdays of the Holy Childhood Association
  • Blessing of Pilgrims before they set out for the holy shrines
  • Blessing of Pilgrims on their return
  • Blessing of Sick Pilgrims
  • Blessing of a Sick Adult
  • Blessing of Sick Children

Blessings of Animals

  • Blessing of Cattle, Herds, Flocks
  • Blessing of Horses and Other Animals
  • Blessing of Sick Animals
  • Blessing of Fowl or any Kind of Bird
  • Blessing of Bees
  • Blessing of Silkworms
  • Deprecatory Blessing Against Pests

Blessings of Homes, Buildings, or Places

  • Blessing of a Cornerstone
  • Blessing of a Private or Domestic Oratory
  • Blessing of an Apartment or a Home
  • Blessing of Homes (two Versions)
  • Blessing of a Bridal Chamber
  • Blessing of a School
  • Solemn Blessing of a School
  • Blessing of a Library
  • Blessing of an Archive
  • Blessing of a Seminary
  • Blessing of a Printing-Office and Printing-Press
  • Blessing of a Hospital or Sanatorium
  • Blessing of a Radio Station
  • Blessing of the sea
  • Blessing of Fields, Mountain-Meadows or Pastures
  • Blessing of Orchards and Vineyards
  • Blessing of a Granary or the Harvest
  • Blessing of a Mill
  • Blessing of a Stable for horses, cattle, etc.
  • Blessing of a Fountain
  • Blessing of a Well
  • Blessing of a Bridge
  • Blessing of a Lime-Kiln
  • Blessing of a Blast-Furnace or of a Brick-Kiln
  • Blessing of Stone-Quarries
  • Blessing of a Marble-Factory
  • Blessing to Ward off Floods

Blessings of Places Designated for Sacred Purposes

  • Blessing and Laying the Corner-Stone of a Church*
  • Blessing of a new Church or a Public Oratory
  • Rite for Reconciling a Profaned Church
  • Rite for Blessing a new Cemetery*
  • Rite for Reconciling a Profaned Cemetery
  • Rite or Shorter Form for Consecrating a Fixed Altar which has lost its consecration if the table or mensa was separated from its support, even if only for a moment.
  • Another Rite or Shorter Form for Consecrating a Fixed Altar which has lost consecration by serious breakage or by the reliquary tomb having been broken or opened

*by the Ordinary or a Priest delegated by him

Blessings of Things Designated for Sacred Functions or Other Sacred Purposes

  • Blessing of an Antimension which by a special Apostolic indult may be used in the celebration of Mass in mission territories, in place of an altar-stone or portable altar*
  • Blessing of a Tabernacle, pyx, Ciborium for reserving the holy Eucharist
  • Blessing of a Monstrance or Ostensorium for exposition of the Blessed Sacrament
  • Blessing of a Reliquary
  • Blessing of Oil-Stocks
  • Blessing of Sacred Vessels or ornaments in general
  • Blessing of Altar-Linens
  • Blessing of a Corporal
  • Blessing of a Pall
  • Blessing of a Purificator
  • Blessing of Priestly Vestments in general
  • Blessing of any Priestly Vestment
  • Solemn Blessing of a Cross
  • More Solemn Blessing of a Cross
  • Solemn Blessing of an Image of our Lord Jesus Christ, the blessed Virgin Mary, or any saint
  • Blessing of a Clerical Cassock (a candidate for holy orders, who has obtained permission to wear the clerical cassock, may wish to have this garment blessed. The clerical aspirant, holding the cassock folded over his outstretched arms, kneels before the priest)
  • Blessing of a Cincture to be worn in honor of our Lord Jesus Christ.
  • Blessing of a Cincture to be worn in honor of the blessed Virgin Mary or a canonized saint
  • Blessing of a Habit to be worn in honor of the blessed Virgin Mary
  • Blessing of a Habit to be worn in honor of the blessed Virgin Mary or a canonized saint
  • Blessing of a Cincture to be worn in honor of St. Joseph, spouse of our Lady
  • Blessing of Lilies on the feast of St. Anthony of Padua
  • Blessing of a Processional Banner of any society
  • Blessing of Candles
  • Blessing of a Church Organ
  • Blessing of a Church Bell designated for a church that is merely blessed or for an oratory*
  • Rite for Erecting Stations of the Cross

BLESSINGS OF THINGS DESIGNATED FOR ORDINARY USE

  • Blessing of Bread and Pastries
  • Blessing of Grapes
  • Blessing of Wine for the Sick
  • Blessing of any Kind of Medicine
  • Blessing of Beer
  • Blessing of Cheese or Butter
  • Blessing of Lard
  • Blessing of Oil
  • Blessing of Salt or Oats for Animals
  • Blessing of Seed
  • Blessing of any Victual
  • Blessing of Fire
  • Blessing of Linens for the Sick
  • Blessing of a Stretcher, Ambulance, Wheelchair
  • Blessing of an Automobile or Other Vehicle
  • Blessing of an Airplane
  • Blessing of a Railway and its Cars
  • A More Solemn Blessing of a Railway and its Cars
  • Blessing of a Ship or Boat
  • Solemn Blessing of a Fishing-Boat
  • Blessing of Tools for Scaling Mountains
  • Blessing of a Seismograph
  • Blessing of a Telegraph
  • Blessing of an Electric Dynamo
  • Blessing of a Fire-Engine
  • Blessing of Molten Metal for a Bell
  • Blessing of a Bell not designated for a church or oratory
  • Blessing of Mobile Film Units for Road Safety
  • Blessing of Anything

*reserved to a Bishop but may be delegated to a Priest

Intercessions for religious freedom

Good (inspiring, confident, faithful Catholicism):

Almighty God, give us, we pray, the grace always to see the image of your son in all people, and, loving Christ, to love them too. Help us always to shine forth as witnesses of the light of Christ, so that, ever patient and gentle, we may lead all people to the fullness of faith in your holy Catholic Church.

Bad (yawn Catholicism, of the kind found in places with ugly, banal liturgy):

We pray that all religions and cultures may always be valued and respected, and that religious discrimination may come to an end, so that human rights may always be upheld.

Now, obviously I’m not against human rights, or the respecting of people’s religious convictions as such. But bland, secular imprecations like the above—-variations of which one hears in church all too often—don’t mention the reason why all should, and Catholics do, respect people’s rights (namely, God’s having created all men for a purpose, and his loving them all), nor the cause of Catholics’ typically keen awareness of the dignity of man (namely, the work of the Holy Spirit).

You will see that my fictional bad intercession also talks of ‘religious discrimination’. On this and similar subjects, too, the intercessions of ‘yawn Catholicism’ are often very unsatisfactory. For we should remember that religious discrimation (to consider only that kind of discrimation) is not always invalid: for example, Catholic schools may legitimately discern their applicants by religion. Indeed, I don’t think the Second Vatican Council precludes states from discriminating in favour of Christians in immigration policy (and I would argue that, if Britain adopts a point-based immigration system, we ought to do just that—not that we ever will of course!).

Nor is this a merely academic point. It is because of wishy-washy incautious indifferentism like the above that so much of the liturgy of ‘yawn Catholicism’ sounds so boring and uninspiring to most Catholics. Most of us are probably afraid to admit just how dull it can be, for fear of being accused of being reactionary, anti-Vat-II types; but in fact we (mostly) aren’t, and we really should be more honest about the meagre liturgical fare that is so often served to us. Better that than simply lapsing, as so many do. Indeed, we should refute people who try to smear us for demanding more faithful prayers.

Jesus falls for the third time

I wrote this poem this Lent. Now that I’m including a greater range of things on my blog, I just thought I’d share it:

No pious weakness this,
No pain proudly borne;
No token of flesh,
No easy, Godly scorn.

What Christ is this?
Dying weak, weak to die,
Falling on Calvary’s way
A stumbling stumbling-block, they say,
All blood, filth and thorns.

This Christ is he:
Who took his cup,
Who mocking-garland bore,
Loved the very hands that plaited,
Never them forswore.
They mocked and spat and cursed:
He suffered all the more–
For love; for love of
Those who tore.

No pious weakness this,
No pain proudly born,
No token of flesh,
No easy, Godly, scorn.

For the thud of every sin,
In every mallet blow,
Need not have grieved God’s hands,
Need not have brought him low,
If not that he had loved us,
Even in full fall.

Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae (1899)

I here offer my translation of Pope Leo XIII’s 1899 letter Testem benevolentiae Nostrae. The below introduction to the letter is taken from an email that I wrote to a publisher, in which I proposed that a new translation of Leo’s works be commissioned:

Testem benevolentiae Nostrae, a letter that Pope Leo sent to the Cardinal Archbishop of Baltimore in 1899, is, I think, interesting and valuable; but no accurate and readable modern English translation of it appears to be available to the public at present. I have come across an online preview of A Light in the Heavens: The Great Encyclical Letters of Pope Leo XIII (Benziger Brothers: New York, 1903), which contains the letter; but that book is neither especially modern nor—from what I’ve seen—especially readable.

 I should perhaps briefly explain my approach in translating Pope Leo’s scholarly and intricate Latin. For the most part, I have not attempted to following anything like his sentence structure; English, in my view, simply doesn’t have the syntactical resources to cope. So, instead of replicating the semantics of his language, I have committed myself more, taking a clear view on what his meaning is, and always trying to work out how an intelligent English speaker would go about conveying the same meaning clearly in his own language. (He will usually need many more full stops, and will have to repeat himself much more often). I have also tried hard to catch the nuances in Leo’s text: clearly, he chooses words very deliberately, and I have found that I have often benefited from a careful consideration of the etymology and imagery/logic behind his words’ dictionary meanings.

 But why do I find this letter interesting? Well: it addresses errors that may arise within the hierarchies of the Church in very advanced and diverse societies; errors which all of us in the West are in danger of making today. Leo talks of the danger of thinking that the Church ought to relax its most difficult (and apparently peripheral) doctrines in order to win converts; the false idea that our age is blessed with a greater effusion of the Holy Spirit than previous ones, and consequently has a better understanding of right and wrong; and other concerning trends of thought.

Most interestingly to me, one of these other problems considered by him is the danger (and irrationality) of preferring the natural virtues to the supernatural, and of the contempt for the religious life that this preference engenders. I find this an especially pregnant point, because it seems to me that bishops in today’s (very diverse) Western societies, and the leaders of other ecclesial communities therein, are too often tempted to try to fulfil their peace-bringing mission merely by entering into religiously-neutral dialogues with governments and other faiths and the wider public; dialogues conducted on the level of natural law. Too much too lazy use of the concept ‘natural law’, in other words, can often disguise a cop-out from the Church’s duty to evangelize; and such lazy use was perhaps growing in the U.S. in Leo’s day, prompted not least by his own Thomist revival. (And I say this as one very interested in that ongoing revival!). Leo neatly shows the incoherence of this: we can only fully adhere to the natural law by the help of grace; nature itself points to the need of the Faith, since only with the help of grace we can perfect our natural virtues.

Lastly: since Leo notes that the cluster of errors mentioned above had been being labelled ‘Americanism’ by some, this document may be of particular interest to readers from the United States.

N.B. The original Latin is available here: https://w2.vatican.va/content/leo-xiii/la/letters/documents/hf_l-xiii_let_18990122_testem-benevolentiae.html

The anti-chapel

I recently completed an application form for a certain Catholic conference. One question I was asked in it was whether there was any part of the Church’s teaching that I would like to see changed. Here is my answer to that question, slightly tweaked. Being essentially a form-answer, it is very compressed; but perhaps some people will find it interesting:

Is the anything in the Church’s teaching that you would like to see changed?

Well, to the extent I understand the formal teachings of the Church, as summarized in the Catechism, I agree with them; and what I don’t fully understand, I humbly obey.

But there are of course many things the Church does which seem to imply and communicate her view of things, but which do not amount to formal teachings. And some of these I find concerning.

One example of such things is her architectural practice. I will work here from the example of Buckfast Abbey, since I visited it last week. The main Abbey is extremely impressive. But behind it is a 1960’s extension, the Blessed Sacrament Chapel. This contains a large impressionistic mosaic of Christ with a loosely patterned background, and (which is far worse) many entirely or almost entirely formless and random pieces of decoration. It’s an early post-modern building.

One can understand what’s so damaging about a church’s having a post-modern chapel by very quickly considering the recent history of architecture and the idea of beauty.

Mediaeval thinkers saw earthly beauty as a reflection of the harmony and order of heaven, the glory of the angelic choirs, and ultimately of the beatific vision. In other words, they thought that there was some analogy between earthly beauty and heavenly beauty; and that therefore earthly beauty fed the soul and nourished the mind, making the latter more adequate to reality. This was why they spent so much time and money on beautiful churches and cathedrals. (For similar reasons, Music was (and is) a higher faculty in the mediaeval universities. After all, music has a unique capacity for providing us with inspiring moments of transcendence; and mediaevals thought that understanding the patterns thereof would give us an insight into the divine mind. This view of the academic subject of Music has perhaps proved a little optimistic; but the mediaevals were certainly right about the nourishing effects of beauty).

Yet after the Reformation, with the loss of the Analogy of Being, the full import of these ideas was unsustainable in Protestant cultures. For just as God’s justice need be nothing like our justice, so earthly beauty wasn’t necessarily linked to heavenly beauty; and so it didn’t necessarily open our minds to anything higher or more ultimate than us.

Now, the value and role of beauty in Western civilization was so fundamental, so deeply embedded, that it long continued to be prized. Yet its cherished role in Western culture could not survive indefinitely once its philosophical underpinnings had been destroyed: and indeed by the 18th century, Protestant thinkers were resorting to a shallow, utilitarian assessment of the value of beauty. They described it as inspiring (in no deeper sense than that it made us feel good, and accept reality as we saw it), and as good for the health. Hence its value was comparable to that of an amusing game, or of fine food. This logic, corrupting Catholic as well as Protestant Europe, eventually led to the gaudy, ignoble degeneration that was Rococo.

But if beauty was nothing more than one Nice Thing amongst others, the pursuit of it could hardly justify the vast sums that were still being spent on great cathedrals and the like. Therefore Modernists and their immediate predecessors viewed beauty, already conceived in such a dessicated way, with suspicion. Was it not just one of those superstitious illusions which prevented Science and Reason from clearing the slums, and ensuring human progress? Having a limited conception of reality, they came to think that an honesty, a cold, ‘realistic’ assessment of ‘how the world really was’, would be more useful; that buildings that showed their workings, and had minimal ornamentation, would better open the public’s eyes to reality.

But modernism did therefore retain an idea of an objective beauty: the idea that certain patterns nourished the mind better than others, making it more adequate to reality. For objective features of buildings such as obviousness of function (with drains on the outside, etc) were to help rid our minds of the sentimental distortions that a focus on the older kind of beauty fostered. (This reasoning was plausible in its early years precisely because Baroque had degenerated into frippery by then).

But modernism failed in its own terms. It did not stop people longing for lavishly expensive forms, little related to function, that they found immediately uplifting; it did not make people wiser or more peaceable. (Indeed Scruton has observed that graffiti sprayers in depressed urban areas gravitate towards defacing the modern buildings around them, as if by instinct; pre-modern buildings they are least likely to spray).

Postmodernists, then, observing this, rejected the idea of objective beauty altogether: that is, they responded to modernist architecture’s failure not by making things beautiful again but by denying that the mere viewing of, and living amongst, certain objective forms could nourish people’s minds. The near-formlessness of their pieces is intended to provide a vehicle for private perceptions minimally encumbered by the straight-jacket of form. (Hence it’s the art of a post-rational philosophy: it leaves us all imprisoned in ourselves, unable to say anything anyone else could understand).

And where there is form, it is child-like, or trite. This is because, if an architect believes that there is no objective beauty that nourishes the mind, then it is only natural for him to try to make the objective features of his building nourish the mind in other ways—e.g. by making ideological points. And the chief of these points is egalitarianism: the equal validity of all perceptions. For, there being no beauty, there can be no truth either; egalitarianism follows—and indeed is the premise and message of all postmodernist art.

Disturbingly, then, the Church has embraced a style that rejects the Analogy of Being, truth, and hierarchy. If one thing could have prevented my conversion, it would have been recent Church architecture.