While attending Mass a few weeks ago I picked up the June-July 2015 issue of Inside the Vatican. I was taken aback-sharply-by some of the Letters to the Editor (why letters to the editor continue to surprise me after years of reading them I’ll never know). One letter, written by a gentleman affiliated with the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (the present-day disciples of Fr. Feeney), asserted
The crucial issue…: no salvation outside the Church. That is the answer; everything else is an effect due to the denial of the cause…the problem with modern Popes is that they do not believe in the Church’s clear teaching on the issue of salvation. Give them a loophole (baptism of desire, etc.) and they prefer that to Holy Scripture and the traditional teaching of the Church and her doctors.
This response, which has an overly simplistic ring to it (“The cause of the Church’s issues is [X] and everything can be solved by [Y]”), but it also makes a nice bookend to comments made in response to Pope Francis’s 2013 comments on salvation (which I recently commented on).
Another letter asserted
Prior to being elected Pope, Francis supported same-sex sexual unions, and thus same-sex sexual acts. The fact that Francis is permitting a debate among Catholics about that which a Catholic must believe with Divine and Catholic Faith, is evidence enough that the Synod was not of The Holy Spirit.
While it may or may not be true that Pope Francis is sending “mixed signals” on homosexuality, to say that he “supports” same-sex sexual acts is…well, bluntly, just wrong. Moreover, the Holy Spirit’s working in the Church is by no means a pretty process to watch (e.g. St. Nicholas decking Arius).
The letters that most stood out to me, however, all concerned Fatima and the Blessed Mother. For instance:
Our Lady is Queen of Heaven and Earth, so when God sent her to Fatima, she said that only she can help us…so I feel the Popes have let us down by not following her orders.
…you did not mention the only effective answer [to the Irish “yes” to same sex marriages]: the Rosary and the sacrifices for the Triumph of Mary. All the “human” explanations and solutions will fail because Satan is far too clever. Only Our Lady is able to crush his head.
For the record, of course, it is not true that “only Our Lady” is able to crush the head of Satan-that role belongs to her son. Much less is it true that “only Mary can help us” (again, that honor belongs to her son). One cannot help a divergence here between the actual teaching of the Church (aptly summarized by Bishop Fulton Sheen, who memorably commented “Mary is like the moon, for her light is always the reflection of a higher light”) and the mindset of the writers. I was reminded of Tim LaHaye, co-author of the abominable Left Behind franchise, who once remarked how “deeply impressed” he was by how the Catholic cathedrals of Latin America reminded him of paganism, particularly in how one cathedral dedicated a far more prominent statue to Mary than Christ. A wise friend of mine read the letters and wondered if perhaps these were stealth letters written by Protestants (“LaHaye lemmings”) to mock Catholics.
I have already given my thoughts on Fatima. When it comes to the Blessed Mother, I think the following comment from Frederica charitably suggests the possible mindset of the letter-writers and the proper response:
I once saw a small comic-book tract (maybe you’ve encountered those Jack Chick publications) that showed the Virgin Mary kneeling before God’s throne; she was praying that he would forgive those Christians who treat her like an idol. Funnily enough, that’s exactly what liturgical Christians believe she does— she prays for us. She must pray especially for those who have misunderstood her role, and “worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Rom. 1: 25). Misguided affection may have been offered with the best of intentions, and in simple ignorance or exuberant but-misguided love; but it is, all the same, a very serious sin and must grieve her profoundly.
It’s a shame that inappropriately extreme adoration of the Theotokos has made some Christians wary of her altogether. If we didn’t have those excesses before our eyes, we’d find it natural to accord her at least as much admiration as we give to the apostle Paul— and more, in fact, considering her unique and tender role in Jesus’ life. He must have loved her very much, and would want us to love and honor her as well.
We don’t preach the Virgin Mary; we preach only Christ. But when we’re at home in the family of the Lord, we cherish her companionship. Likewise, you might discover on a visit to a friend’s home that you like his parents and siblings, too. That would not diminish your affection for your friend, but enhance it.
In short, the sentiment expressed by the letter writers is “misguided affection” and “inappropriately extreme adoration.” It is, to put it another way, a forgivable mistake, but a mistake nonetheless. Nor is it a new problem. I do not recommend The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Catholicism as a reliable source (the authors have an extremely liberal bent and conclude by recommending something they call “quantum Catholicism”), but I think the book aptly summarized the “Mary problem” when it noted that whenever the Magisterium has tried to de-emphasize Mary her light glows brighter in the hearts of the people. I can sympathize-I have never, even in my most Protestant moments, been able to fathom how anyone could have a problem with Catholic Marian devotion.
Having said this, I’d like to turn my attention to a broader issue: Catholic spirituality has a bent, it seems, towards superstition. Father Andrew Greeley explained this well in his book The Catholic Imagination:
Catholics live in an enchanted world, a world of statues and holy water, stained glass and votive candles, saints and religious medals, rosary beads and holy pictures. But these Catholic paraphernalia are mere hints of a deeper and more pervasive religious sensibility which inclines Catholics to see the Holy lurking in creation. As Catholics, we find our houses and our world haunted by a sense that the objects, events, and persons of daily life are revelations of grace.
This special Catholic imagination can appropriately be called sacramental. It sees created reality as a “sacrament,” that is, a revelation of the presence of God. The workings of this imagination are most obvious in the Church’s seven sacraments, but the seven are both a result and a reinforcement of a much broader Catholic view of reality. And Reality.
Catholic devotions include, as I have said, Mary the mother of Jesus, angels and saints, souls in purgatory, statues, stained-glass windows, holy water, religious medals, candles. Most other Christian denominations do not engage in such devotions. Indeed, they dismiss them as superstition and perhaps idolatry.
[David]Tracy noted that the classic works of Catholic theologians and artists tend to emphasize the presence of God in the world, while the classic works of Protestant theologians tend to emphasize the absence of God from the world. The Catholic writers stress the nearness of God to His creation, the Protestant writers the distance between God and His creation; the Protestants emphasize the risk of superstition and idolatry, the Catholics the dangers of a creation in which God is only marginally present. Or, to put the matter in different terms, Catholics tend to accentuate the immanence of God, Protestants the transcendence of God. Tracy is consistently careful to insist that neither propensity is superior to the other, that both need each other, and, in my sociological terminology, the correlation between the two imaginations and their respective religious traditions is low level. Nonetheless, they are different one from another.
The Catholic imagination in all its many manifestations (Tracy calls it “analogical”) tends to emphasize the metaphorical nature of creation. The objects, events, and persons of ordinary existence hint at the nature of God and indeed make God in some fashion present to us. God is sufficiently like creation that creation not only tells us something about God but, by so doing, also makes God present among us. Everything in creation, from the exploding cosmos to the whirling, dancing, and utterly mysterious quantum particles, discloses something about God and, in so doing, brings God among us.
Though Fr. Greeley is here focusing on the differences in Catholic perception and Protestant perception I find his description of the Catholic sacramental imagination deeply congruent with the Eastern Orthodox view expressed by Fr. Stephen Freeman in his book Everywhere Present. In any case, however, a Protestant perspective that neatly illustrates the contrast Tracy and Fr. Greely were drawing comes from Rev. Rutledge, who once noted
Almost every week I think about the importance of the Reformation. A few days ago on NPR there was a long discussion about the unequalled importance of reading and how reading shapes the mind in ways that nothing else can, certainly not video games. (It was heartening to hear that the advanced oral traditions of certain illiterate and pre-literate cultures have played the same role in this respect as reading has done in literate cultures.) One of the panelists started talking about the harnessing of the printing press by the Reformation. He argued that this phenomenon unleashed a great surge of intellectual freedom that only now showed signs of slowing as people are reading less and less. This argument about the Reformation is not new, but hearing it reminded me of the power and significance of the Protestant idea. This is no time for the Church to turn its back on the Reformation! We necessarily live now in a post-Enlightenment age — that is a given, no matter how much the heirs of Thomas Jefferson may want to reverse the course — but thank God for the Enlightenment and its very Protestant reaction against superstition, fortune, and fate.
Elsewhere, she is even more provocative:
To what extent do the people participating believe that a statue has intrinsic power? Do the uneducated among them think that the idol is really a goddess? Do people who rub the foot of St. Peter at theVatican believe in the efficacy of a bronze statue? Do worshippers in Eastern Orthodox churches think that an ikon of a saint has spiritual powers? Do Tibetan Buddhists believe that turning a prayer wheel is in itself a sufficient mode of praying? I have been told repeatedly that the answer to these questions is no, but I remain partially unconvinced. It is a very easy matter to transfer one’s hopes and dreams to a simple ritual involving an inanimate object; isn’t it much more challenging and potentially more transforming to refuse material aids and direct one’s thoughts and prayers to the God who has revealed himself exclusively through his Word? In that respect, at least, Islam offers a more rigorous view of God.
It behooves us all to work at understanding world religions the way that we would like Christianity to be understood. Most readers of this blog don’t want Jerry Falwell and Joel Osteen to define Christian faith, and we should not judge religions by their most egregious or uneducated practitioners. Although most Protestants are disturbed by the veneration of relics and the cult of the saints in many circles of Roman Catholicism, we don’t believe that is the best of Roman Catholic theology and practice.
Now, I love Rev. Rutledge, but on this matter I part company with her. She is not wrong to note the problem of superstition or that the Reformation helped correct certain abuses. Fr. Greeley agrees:
The Reformers, rightly upset about the prevalence of superstition among the peasant peoples of Europe, thought that the analogical imagination brought God too close to the world and was responsible for superstition. Indeed, the dialectical imagination, latent in the Catholic heritage all along, emerged powerfully with the Reformers precisely because it had not been taken seriously enough by Catholic leadership (though what the Church could have done about the peasant superstition in Europe is another question). Tracy quite properly insists that the dialectical imagination is a necessary corrective to the analogical imagination.
Nonetheless, Rev. Rutledge is wrong to conclude that ritual and the use of material aids is incompatible with the “God who has revealed himself exclusively in his Word.” Catholicism, of course, agrees that God is revealed exclusively in His Word but for the Catholic, Christ is the Word of God, not the Bible; the Word is expressed in both Scripture and Tradition (the latter making copious use of ritual and material aids); and we are not, as the Catechism notes, “people of the book” (see # 65, #s 101-104, and-particularly-# 108). Indeed, to her remark that Islam offers a “more rigorous view of God,” I offer Fr. Freeman’s thoughts in response.
In regards to ritual, Seyyed Hossein Nasr suggests that
…rituals, from the point of view of religion, are God-made. I am not using the term ritual as seen from the secular point of view, as if one were putting on one’s gown and going to some commencement exercise or some other humanly created action, often called a “ritual” in everyday discourse today. I am using it in the religious sense. According to all traditional religions, rituals descend from Heaven…these rites, by virtue of their re-enactment on earth, link the earth with the higher levels of reality. A rite always links us with the vertical axis of existence, and by virtue of that, links us also with the principles of nature.
This sentiment is echoed by the Catechism:
1147 God speaks to man through the visible creation. the material cosmos is so presented to man’s intelligence that he can read there traces of its Creator.16 Light and darkness, wind and fire, water and earth, the tree and its fruit speak of God and symbolize both his greatness and his nearness.
1148 Inasmuch as they are creatures, these perceptible realities can become means of expressing the action of God who sanctifies men, and the action of men who offer worship to God. the same is true of signs and symbols taken from the social life of man: washing and anointing, breaking bread and sharing the cup can express the sanctifying presence of God and man’s gratitude toward his Creator.
1149 The great religions of mankind witness, often impressively, to this cosmic and symbolic meaning of religious rites. the liturgy of the Church presupposes, integrates and sanctifies elements from creation and human culture, conferring on them the dignity of signs of grace, of the new creation in Jesus Christ.
As for the Catholic view of sacraments, Karl Adam articulates the Catholic view beautifully:
The second element in her internal catholicity is her comprehensive affirmation of the whole man, of human nature in its completeness, of the body as well as the soul, of the senses as well as the intellect. The mission of the Church is to the entire man.
So the Church, starting from this basis, is able to enlist man’s entire nature, his body and its sensitive life, his reason and his will, in the service of the Kingdom of God. Since man’s nature is not essentially damaged in its natural powers, but only by diversion from its supernatural end, that is to say by a false orientation, therefore so soon as this false orientation is mended and man is replaced by baptism in his original, living union with God, that nature can be gripped in all its powers by the Church’s preaching. The Church as the Body of Christ lays hold of all that is of God, and therefore of man’s body, his senses and his passions, just as much as of his intellect and will.
Hence two further elements in that catholicity which gives the Church her comprehensive power of attraction. The first of these is that she loves and understands man’s nature, his bodily and sensitive structure, as well as his mental powers.
This reverence for the body leads the Church further to a careful consideration for man’s sensible needs. Since we are not pure spirits, but spirits enmeshed in body, we grasp spiritual things by means of things visible and sensible. Hence the whole sacramental system of Christianity and the Church.
In short: Boom. Catholicism encompasses everything Protestantism offers, but is far more comprehensive-more complete-precisely because it goes beyond refusing material aids and is not limited to the written Word. Ditto for Orthodoxy.
In any case, Fr. Greeley has a bit more to say:
In the chaos which enveloped Western Europe during the time of the invasions and the gradual collapse of the Roman civil order, the Church lacked the resources to do anything more than spread a veneer of Christianity over the resident pagan cultures save in the royal courts, the monasteries, and eventually the universities (from which sources come the little we know about the early Middle Ages). People were baptized, married, and buried in Catholic rites administered by often semiliterate, and usually married, clergy who frequently had no idea what the words or the ceremonies meant. To expropriate as much paganism as one could was merely to make a virtue of necessity. Still, Catholic Christianity did not hesitate in carrying out this perhaps foolhardy strategy. In one sense, the Reformation was a protest of a segment of the clerical elite and the newly emerging middle class against the continuation of paganism at a time when the Dark Ages had been definitely left behind.
Historian Stephen Ozment, no foe to Protestantism, remarks of the Reformation and the Counter Reformation that they were a “conservative campaign on the part of elite Christian clergy to subdue a surrounding native culture that had always been and preferred to remain semi-pagan . . . an attempt to impose on uneducated and reluctant men and women a Christian way of life utterly foreign to their own experiences and very much against their own desires.” Having undercut traditional Catholic ritual and practice, he adds, the Reformation unloosed far worse superstitions, especially concerning witchcraft, that were among the horrors of European preliterate culture.
If the rainforest of metaphors, which Catholicism not only made its peace with but also patently celebrated, provided it with an enormous wealth of resources (and, I will argue, is why Catholics remain Catholic), it also created problems from which Catholicism has never been freed— superstition, folk religion, idolatry. What, for example, about Our Lady of Guadalupe? Some Catholic historians will argue that devotion to her is a form of folk religion which has crossed the admittedly broad and permeable boundary between Catholicism and paganism. The original shrine in Spain (an image on a rock) was a baptized pagan sanctuary. While the Mexican devotion to this Lady wears a patina of Catholicism, the customs and beliefs associated with it are mostly superstitious. Indeed, the woman does not even hold the Babe in her arms; she is not even a Madonna.
Yet does she not assure the masses of Mexico that God loves them like a mother as well as like a father, that she is on their side when they resist poverty and oppression? Will not Mexican Americans tell you that she is not carrying the Babe because she is pregnant with Him and will soon bring Him to life even as she brings life to us? Is she not then an appropriate popular exercise of the Catholic religious sensibility?
I will not assert that the Catholic imaginative tradition— the way Catholics picture the world and God’s relationship to it— is better than other ways which might be available but merely that it is different. Nor will I suggest that it is without potential weaknesses and flaws, especially its propensity for folk religion, superstition, and magic. Instead, I will suggest that it chooses to emphasize the presence of God in the world and runs the risks of that choice while acknowledging that the opposite choice— to emphasize the absence of God from creation— has risks of its own.
In short, of course Catholic spirituality carries the risk of superstition, folk religion, and idolatry. But corruptio optimi pessima. This risk is simply the consequence of a spirituality that properly reflects both human nature (as Adam noted) and the presence of grace in the world (as Frs. Greeley and Freeman have observed) being improperly incarnated by fallen human beings. It is a risk that we cannot avoid-and we should not try.
The Catechism helpfully articulates the Church’s position on superstition:
2111 Superstition is the deviation of religious feeling and of the practices this feeling imposes. It can even affect the worship we offer the true God, e.g., when one attributes an importance in some way magical to certain practices otherwise lawful or necessary. To attribute the efficacy of prayers or of sacramental signs to their mere external performance, apart from the interior dispositions that they demand, is to fall into superstition.41
The paragraphs on popular piety are helpful as well:
1675 These expressions of piety extend the liturgical life of the Church, but do not replace it. They “should be so drawn up that they harmonize with the liturgical seasons, accord with the sacred liturgy, are in some way derived from it and lead the people to it, since in fact the liturgy by its very nature is far superior to any of them.”181
1676 Pastoral discernment is needed to sustain and support popular piety and, if necessary, to purify and correct the religious sense which underlies these devotions so that the faithful may advance in knowledge of the mystery of Christ.182 Their exercise is subject to the care and judgment of the bishops and to the general norms of the Church.
At its core the piety of the people is a storehouse of values that offers answers of Christian wisdom to the great questions of life. The Catholic wisdom of the people is capable of fashioning a vital synthesis. . . . It creatively combines the divine and the human, Christ and Mary, spirit and body, communion and institution, person and community, faith and homeland, intelligence and emotion. This wisdom is a Christian humanism that radically affirms the dignity of every person as a child of God, establishes a basic fraternity, teaches people to encounter nature and understand work, provides reasons for joy and humor even in the midst of a very hard life. For the people this wisdom is also a principle of discernment and an evangelical instinct through which they spontaneously sense when the Gospel is served in the Church and when it is emptied of its content and stifled by other interests.181