Conservative vs Liberal
Nobody talks about it much. Many haven�t given it any thought, but a certain polarization has finally taken hold of our little parish. It is something that has existed in the Church for centuries, but has been given opportunity to thrive in the post Vatican II years. I am talking about conservatism versus liberalism within the Church. When talking politics, most people can tell you where their beliefs lie. When speaking of their Catholic faith, many cannot define their position clearly.
The controversy itself is often misunderstood. Many think liberalism is the opposite of orthodoxy. This is not true. One can be liberal, yet completely orthodox. One can also be conservative and heterodox. I would define an orthodox Catholic as one who completely submits to the Magesterial teachings of the Catholic Church. Catholic doctrine tends to develop from challenges to Traditional teaching and therefore clearly asserts what we are to believe on certain matters. There are many areas of theology that are not explicitly defined and leave room for discussion. It is possible, therefore, to take a conservative or liberal approach to theology and still remain orthodox with respect to Church doctrine.
What happens in my view is that liberal Catholics occasionally explore the outer limits of orthodoxy and sometimes wander outside the lines. Conservatives would appear to be more aware of Church doctrine much as a political conservative adheres to the Constitution. The conservative clings to the trunk of the tree while the liberal will explore the outer branches, even at the risk of having one snap off. The conservative thinks we cannot do anything unless the Church says it is okay, while the liberal thinks we can do anything we want unless the Church says we can�t.
So how do we spot the conservatives and the liberals? Although not one hundred percent foolproof, there are a few telltale indicators. The liberals will be either holding hands or assuming the orans posture at the Our Father, while the conservatives will either have their hands folded or will be leaning on the pew in front of them. Anyone receiving the Holy Eucharist on the tongue is probably conservative while the liberal most likely receives in the hand. Conservatives prefer to receive from the priest while the liberals prefer the Eucharistic Minister. Conservatives prefer to kneel while liberals prefer to stand.
A conservative knows the GIRM while a liberal has never heard of the GIRM. A conservative can spot liturgical abuse from a mile away (or at least from the back pew), while the liberal is the one committing the abuse. A conservative goes to confession once a month, while a liberal goes to reconciliation once a year (maybe). A liberal thinks the homily is too long, while the conservative thinks it is too short. A liberal homily is about heaven, while a conservative homily is about hell. A liberal prefers Dan Shutte while a conservative prefers Gregorian chant. A liberal sings Down in Adoration Falling, while a conservative sings Tantum Ergo (and knows all the words in Latin by heart). A liberal prefers the guitar, while the conservative insists on the pipe organ. A liberal likes the trio in front, while the conservative likes the choir in the loft.
A liberal prefers sitting in a semi-circle while a conservative wants his pews in straight rows. Liberals prefer modern architecture, while conservatives prefer century-old cathedrals. Liberals call Father by his first name, while conservatives use his last.
A conservative believes in miracles, while a liberal believes in allegory. A conservative can deliver a reasonable apology, while a liberal reasons that he deserves an apology. A conservative is troubled by a liberal, while a liberal is annoyed by a conservative. A liberal believes he has no right to criticize the actions of others while a conservative believes he has an obligation to criticize the actions of others. A liberal will vote for a pro-choice candidate while a conservative will vote pro-life only.
Get the picture? Of course I�m taking a few liberties with some of these indicators. Whether one is a liberal Catholic or conservative Catholic may be of little concern to most people, but it does cause division and resentment when manifested in the liturgy. It becomes a serious problem, when extremists in either ideology cross over into heterodoxy.
Conservatives don�t like anyone tinkering with the Mass. Not only is the Mass itself sacred, the form of the Mass is also sacred. Innovative postures, language, singing, vestments, furniture rearrangement, or other unconventional changes are most unwelcome. The liturgy must strictly follow guidelines set forth in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), and rightfully so. Every Catholic has a right to a valid and licit Mass.
Some innovations have relatively minor consequences. Whether the congregation holds hands, folds hands, or raises hands during the �Our Father� probably makes little difference in the scheme of things. Who cares? Well, some conservatives do care. Extending arms in the orans position or holding hands are both innovations that have crept into the liturgy. Is it liturgically proper? I believe the answer is �no�. While a committee of bishops once recommended that the orans posture be permitted, the missal containing this instruction has not been issued, let alone approved. Even deacons do not assume the orans posture. Similarly, holding hands during the �Our Father� is not liturgically proper, insignificant as it may seem.
Why should anyone make an issue of something so insignificant? There is a battle taking place within the church of which many Catholics may not be aware. Liberal bishops, priests, and theologians want to institute new age concepts into the liturgy, making it more participant friendly. Many of them fall into the mindset that they must be on the cutting edge of new ideas, forcing invented symbolism into the liturgy at the expense of long established practice. Perhaps they want others to think that they have some particular insight to which others are blind. One gets the impression that they are searching for something they may have lost sight of.
Conservative Catholics are more pious. They have a long-established reverence for the Blessed Sacrament and the meaning of the Mass. They feel a certain comfort in the familiarity of worship as they were taught by their parents and grandparents. Even new converts often come in with a wonderful appreciation of the history of the Church, an appreciation sensitized by years of wandering through a myriad of protestant ideologies. Feelings of resentment arise when innovations are forced upon them by those who the conservatives feel are less knowledgeable.
While the hand-holding or orans imposition may be trivial in itself, conservatives share a genuine concern that minor abuses will evolve into major apostasy. While a liberal may think such concerns are nonsense, the fact that dissenters have established themselves in positions of power in the Catholic community has bolstered apprehension among the more conservative Catholics. Consequently, we have a battle between those trying to maintain pure orthodox Catholicism and those who want to re-visit, refine, and in some cases, redefine the liturgy.
Because the Catholic Church is by name, the universal Church, it is important that we maintain unity in our liturgical practice, a difficult task with over a billion Catholics spread all over the world. When liturgical procedures are subjected to subtle, yet evolutionary changes at the diocesan and parish levels, it becomes impossible to maintain the sameness one should expect to see throughout the universal Church. For this reason alone, it is desirable to avoid innovation. Furthermore, new introductions may alter the meaning of liturgical practices introduced for a particular purpose which those at the local level do not understand.
One might think that diversity in liturgy is okay, even desirable, as long as it does not cross the line into heterodoxy. This may be true were it not for a troubling phenomenon taking place in the Church. Certain liberal members of the laity have been allowed to influence reformation of the liturgy. Even more disturbing is the fact that American bishops and priests have embraced these new ideas and imposed them upon their parishes, even when such innovations are at odds with the rubrics.
A current liturgical fad is finding its way into the Mass of the Lord�s Supper on Holy Thursday. When Pope Pius XII restored the washing of feet to the Holy Thursday liturgy in 1955, twelve men would participate by having their feet washed by the priest. The ritual reenacts the actions of Our Lord in John, Chapter 13, where He washes the feet of his twelve disciples. Not wanting the women to feel excluded, many parishes eventually began including women among the twelve. Not wanting others to feel excluded, many parishes eventually began washing more than twelve. Now, some parishes are washing not only feet, but the hands of the entire congregation.
Is this liturgically proper? One would think the Church position would be clear in such matters, and actually, it is. Why, then, is there so much variation in practice among well-meaning bishops and priests? Does the Church allow women to participate in the Holy Thursday foot washing or not? The United States Catholic Bishops� Committee on the Liturgy has a question and answer section on their web page where this very question was posed.
According to the USCCB web site, the rubric for Holy Thursday, under the title Washing of Feet, reads as follows: �Depending on pastoral circumstance, the washing of feet follows the homily. The men who have been chosen (viri selecti) are led by the ministers to chairs prepared at a suitable place. Then the priest (removing his chasuble if necessary) goes to each man. With the help of the ministers he pours water over each one�s feet and dries them.�
The words viri selecti literally means selected men. End of argument, right? Well, the web page response does not stop there. It goes on to explain the significance of the foot washing rite �as a sign of the new commandment that Christians should love one another.� Later in the response, the following is stated: �Because the gospel of the mandatum read on Holy Thursday also depicts Jesus as the �Teacher and Lord� who humbly serves his disciples by performing this extraordinary gesture which goes beyond the laws of hospitality, the element of service has accentuated the celebration of the foot washing rite in the United States over the last decade or more. In this regard, it has become customary in many places to invite both men and women to be participants in this rite in recognition of the service that should be given by all the faithful to the Church and to the world. Thus, in the United States, a variation in the rite developed in which not only charity is signified but also humble service.�
Continuing, the bishops� response says: �While this variation may differ from the rubric of the Sacramentary which mentions only men (viri selecti), it may nevertheless be said that the intention to emphasize service along with charity in the celebration of the rite is an understandable way accentuating the evangelical command of the Lord, �who came to serve and not to be served,� that all members of the Church must serve one another in love.�
So is it liturgically permissible to wash the feet of women on Holy Thursday or not? Bishops appear to self-interpret rubrics the same way Protestants self-interpret Scripture. If a passage doesn�t quite jive with a personal belief, the conflict can be explained away. The rubric says �men�, but the significance of the rite can be spun to justify something else. If the bishops can play Cafeteria Catholic in choosing which rubrics to follow, one can certainly understand the tendency of some Catholics to pick which commandments of the Church they choose to follow.
Again I am reminded of the wisdom of St. Thomas Aquinas who warned of the diminished binding power of a rule once it is compromised. If nobody seems to mind washing women�s feet on Holy Thursday, why not wash everyone�s feet? If we are going to emphasize service, why not make it easier by washing hands instead? All three of these innovations (women, more than twelve, and washing hands) are coming to our parish for the first time this year. Where do these ideas come from and where will they eventually lead?
The April, 2003, edition of Adoremus Bulletin contains an article titled When �Strangers and Silent Spectators� Plan the Liturgy. The author, Susan J. Benofy, attended the Gateway Liturgical Conference held earlier this year in Saint Louis. In the article, she reports on a presentation on liturgical planning by Marchita Mauck, a former advisor to the Bishops Committee on the Liturgy. Mauck advocates using innovative ways to make liturgy memorable. Regarding Holy Thursday, she believes that �one of the most powerful things is for everybody to get their feet washed.� She disregards the fact that the rubric specifies men. She believes that allowing a stranger to wash your feet and washing a stranger�s feet, will make the event more memorable and meaningful.
Benofy reports that conference participants seemed receptive to Mauck�s ideas and some offered their own variations, including a parish where hands are washed instead of feet. Their priest explained that washing hands is the equivalent in our time of washing feet in Jesus� time. Where will reasoning such as this eventually take us? If feet got dirty in Jesus� time as a result of travel, perhaps washing cars would be a more relevant modern day equivalent. Maybe we should all proceed to the parking lot on Holy Thursday and wash each other�s whitewalls. In all fairness to Mauck, liberal as she is, even she believes symbolic content is lost if feet are not washed.
Why do bishops and priests listen to these whimsical lay people? As Benofy points out, �Viewing the liturgy from outside itself liberates those who plan liturgies from the restricting influence of the rubrics or liturgical documents, such as the . . . General Instruction of the Roman Missal [GIRM].� She goes on to explain the GIRM does recommend planning the liturgy as a matter of selecting from among options given in the liturgical books, and that the GIRM assumes the �liturgical planner� is the priest. The real tragedy is when the priest chooses an unqualified lay person�s innovation over the rubrics of the authoritative Church.
At what point does our liturgy cease to be Catholic, and why would anyone want to venture into that territory? At some point, a bishop is going to find himself in a difficult position where he must rein in liturgy run amok. This will create confusion and hard feelings among those liberals who may find inspiration in illicit liturgy. Added to the confusion and hard feelings already thrust upon the conservatives when the innovations were introduced, there are no winners here. For the record, Pope John Paul II will be washing the feet of twelve men on Holy Thursday. No good Catholic will feel left out, nor uninspired.