Daily Archives: 7 December 2005

Individualization of Modern Urban Christianity

A priest I once heard in a white middle-class parish defended the reformed liturgy by saying that it had become necessary to ‘de-Europeanize’ the Roman Catholic Church. He said that Catholicism must translate God’s Word into the many languages and cultures of the world. I suppose he is right. I do not think, however, that the primary impetus for liturgical reformation came from Third World Catholics. I think rather that it came in response to a middle-class crisis of faith in North America and Western Europe. The new liturgy is suited especially to those who live in the secular city, alone in their faith for most of the week. It is not a liturgy suited to my parents or grandparents as much as to me.

When I go to church on Sunday I am forced to recognize a great deal about myself. I would rather go to a high ceremonial mass, reap for an hour or two its communal assurance. The sentimental solution would be ideal: to remain a liberal Catholic and to worship at a traditional mass. But now that I no longer live as a Catholic in a Catholic world, I cannot expect the liturgy–which reflects and cultivates my faith–to remain what it was. I will continue to go to the English mass. I will go because it is my liturgy. I will, however, often recall with nostalgia the faith I have lost.

And I will be uneasy knowing that the old faith was lost as much by choice as it was inevitably lost. My education may have made it inevitable that I would become a citizen of the secular city, but I have come to embrace the city’s values: social mobility; pluralism; egalitarianism; self-reliance. By choice I do not confine myself to Catholic society. Most of my friends and nearly all of my intimates are non-Catholics. With them I normally will observe the politesse of secular society concerning religion–say nothing about it. By choice I do not pray before eating lunch in a downtown restaurant. (My public day is not divided by prayer.) By choice I do not consult the movie ratings of the Legion of Decency, and my reading is not curtailed by the [Papal] Index. By choice I am ruled by conscience rather than the authority of priests I consider my equals. I do not listen to papal pronouncements with which I disagree.

Recently, bishops and popes who have encouraged liturgical reforms have seemed surprised at the insistence of so many Catholics to determine for themselves the morality of such matters as divorce, homosexuality, contraception, abortion, and extramarital sex. But the Church fathers who initiated rituals that reflect a shared priesthood of laity and clergy should not be surprised by the independence of modern Catholics. The authoritarian Church belonged to another time. It was an upper-class Church; it was a lower-class Church. It was a hierarchical Church. It was my grandparents’ Church.

SOURCE: Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez, by Richard Rodriguez (Bantam Books, 1982), pp. 114-115

Leave a comment

Filed under religion

Privatization of Medieval Christianity

The biomedical devastation [of the Black Death] had a strange and complex impact on the Church. It may have reinforced a trend away from optimism to pessimism, from a God who could be partly encapsulated in reason and was a mighty comfort and fortress, to one whose majesty and planning and rationale were impenetrable, although that pessimistic inclination was already rising in intellectual circles thirty years before the Great Pestilence.

The century after the Black Death was marked–in England, France, the Low Countries, and Germany–by what may be called the privatization of medieval Christianity. This took both organizational and spiritual forms. Organizationally there was a rush by the affluent upper middle class to found chantries, private chapels supported by one family or a small group of families. The great lords and millionaire gentry and merchants had always had private chapels. Along with the capability of having three hundred people for dinner in your household, it was the signal conspicuous consumption of great wealth.

In the more plebeian chantries, the rising middle class imitated their betters. Even the workers organized into craft guilds got into the act. The labor corporations also became confraternities that sustained private chapels and provided burial benefits to their members.

Spiritually and intellectually, the century after the Black Death in England and elsewhere in northern Europe was marked by the rise of intense personal mysticism and separately by a privatist kind of bourgeois behavior in elaborate spiritual exercises….

The Black Death provided an activating psychological context for privatization of late medieval religions. It did not create it.

SOURCE: In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death & the World It Made, by Norman F. Cantor (Harper Perennial, 2002), pp. 203-206

UPDATE: Up-and-coming medievalist Andrew Reeves comments:

I disagree with this assessment that the plague had much to do with an increased sense of individualized devotion. The real period for “privatization” was the thirteenth century. It was the Church’s emphasis on genuine penance and contrition in the area of sin that began in the twelfth century and reached it’s full articulation in Lateran IV that began it.

Now then, the profusion of pastoralia (manuals of pastoral care, dealing with confession and instruction) in the years around Lateran IV and after was most extensive in England and France north of the Loire, but such materials appear in other parts of Europe as well.

Maybe that accounts for Cantor’s waffling a bit in the final paragraph of the excerpt quoted above.

Leave a comment

Filed under Europe, religion