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Roman Catholicism: Two More Reasons Not To Go Back

This week, Kendall Harmon featured two pieces on the Roman Catholic Church that caught my attention: one which made more formal some of the language used in the Mass, and another which forbids the use of “Yahweh” as the divine name.

A few notes for the uninitiated: all Catholic liturgies are composed in Latin as their “master” and translated into the various vernacular languages for use.  Thus, the Mass changes don’t represent a liturgical change, although English speakers will certainly feel like they do.  The latter change is, IMHO, a little disingenuous, since the use of “Yahweh” as the divine name was popularised by the Jerusalem Bible, one of the first approved Catholic translations directly from the original languages after the 1943 papal encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu which permitted such translations.  (No, I don’t want to hear Petra fans claim that “Yahweh Love” is what did it.)

But back to the post.  In the midst of all these pronouncements, at our General Assembly I met Wojciech Wloch, overseer of the Church of God in Poland, who came with Jonathan Augustine, Regional Superintendent and a frequent commenter on MissionalCOG.  Wojciech and I have a good deal in common, and that’s based on the fact that both of us are exiles/refugees from the Catholic Charismatic Renewal.  The confluence of all this has got me thinking again about the Roman Catholic Church, where it’s been and where it might be going.

One thing that’s hard for Protestants to understand is the bond that develops between Catholics and their church, even when the church isn’t very relational.  That’s why I thought long and hard before posting this. It did get a pot shot from one “Hey Doc,” but he got his just desserts here.  In any case, after posting that I have noticed more people openly proclaim their love for the Church of God.

That bond, however, can be hard to break.  That’s why I advise people, when they minister to Roman Catholics, to focus on the three questions I ask here. You may well find that you get a lot of “help” from the Catholic Church in the way they end up answering the last one.  That’s because Roman Catholicism more often than not discourages its faithful to be sold out directly to God: it gets in the way of the institutionalism that is central to its idea of itself.

That’s ultimately what happened to Wojciech and myself.  And that was accelerated by the pontificate of Wojciech’s fellow Pole, John Paul II.  It was his accession in 1978 that was the beginning of the end of the free-flowing, ecumenical Catholic Charismatic Renewal.  Both of us found a “litmus test” presented to us in the form of devotions to Mary, which weren’t in the playbook before that. So now we find ourselves in the Church of God’s “book,” doing what God has called us to do.

Now we have another Pope who has his own agenda.  He is exploring things his predecessor did not, such as open baptisms of Muslim converts, his dialogues with Anglo-Catholics and, with the two moves noted above, he is trying very hard to upgrade the sense of reverence that the sacred mysteries evoke.  In doing so, he is setting the Catholic Church on a course that may be hard for Protestants to understand.

There are two sides to this.

His moves regarding the liturgy, in Protestant terms, evoke a question every church deals with: is it possible to change the form of worship without changing its substance?  Benedict is basically answering this in the negative.  Exhibit #1 in his favour is, of course, the Anglican Communion, which has seen liturgical accretions such as the 1979 BCP, with its “Contract on the Episcopalians” and other uninspiring innovations.  The saying for this is “Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi” (the law of praying is the law of believing) and, although this applies more to liturgical churches, it’s something that our worship and prayer leaders need to think about before changing how we worship or pray.

On the other hand, I’ve always felt that Roman Catholicism’s greater flexibility–and general informality–in the way it celebrated the Mass was a sign of strength.  As I noted some time ago:

Having been Episcopalian (pre-1979 prayer book) and Catholic at various times in my life, I always frame this issue (the difference between an “Anglo-Catholic” church and a Roman Catholic one) in a simple way: the difference between my last service at Bethesda-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church and my first Mass at St. Edward’s Catholic Church, both in Palm BeachI’ve dealt with this issue before but perhaps an illustration would make things clearer.

Bethesda wasn’t quite an Anglo-Catholic church then, but the undertow was there: very formal liturgy (and trained acolytes to help with it,) paid youth and adult choirs to make sure they got it right, and very long (~1 hr 30 min) Holy Communions with all of Cranmer’s antique prose topped off by the 1928 Prayer Book’s prayer for the dead.  And everyone dressed up for the occasion.

St. Edward’s was a whole different story: modern liturgy (the Novus Ordo Missae had only been official for two years,) no music at many Masses, no intonations of “Gawd” from the altar like the Episcopalians did.  Without music and with the right celebrant, thirty-five minutes and the sacred mysteries were done, at which point all of the men stampeded out in their golf shirts, presumably having made a tee time at the Everglades Club or the Breakers.  (Catholics’ way of dressing down for Mass was way ahead of its time.)

Anglo-Catholicism always liked a “frillier” form of Christianity, presumably because it looked and felt good and because it helped to drive home the sacredness of what they were doing.  Roman Catholicism can certainly do the ceremonial when the occasion calls for it, but the efficacy of the sacraments is driven by the nature of the church, not because of how elaborately the sacred mysteries are celebrated.

What Benedict is doing is taking a kind of “Anglo-Catholic” approach to reformalise the liturgy.  In doing so, is he admitting that the general view of the church is not strong?  I’m inclined to think this is the case.

Beyond that, as we all know part of the purpose of our worship is to communicate the things of God to people.  Central to communication is imparting things in a form that people understand.  The more “traditional” we are, the greater the risk we run in being incomprehensible.  Adjustments such as the ones at the top of this post will gladden the hearts of Catholic traditionalists (who are very vocal these days) but may not be helpful to those they’d like to reach.

And that includes those of us they’ve run off.  We continue onward, knowing that with each passing day the Vatican shuts the door ever more tightly.  Now there are two more reasons not to turn back and to “…press on to the goal, to gain the prize of that heavenward Call which God gave me through Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 3:14)


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