If there is one thing that Catholics on all sides of the liturgical divide can agree on, is that the besetting problem of the Catholic clergy today, and often the liturgy they celebrate, is narcissism. The navel-gazing preoccupation with the self at the expense of the common good and the communion of the Church is faulted for many of the Church’s woes. But just where that narcissism lies, Catholics are in disagreement.
There are those who argue that young priests today are unbelievably narcissistic. All they care about is cappa magnas, lace albs, highly cultured music, and imposing a pray-pay-and-obey mentality on a faithful increasingly tired of clerical self-absorption. The charge is that many of those who seek a reform of the liturgy in a certain direction are using that as a disguise for clerical narcissism.
Then there is the riposte. There are others who condemn the consciously Vatican II style priests as the real narcissists. They obscure the sacred behind talk-show, living room, vulgar antics. They advance an agenda of heresy and schism by preferring their own half-baked opinions to the solid rock of doctrine. They are the ones who have necessitated a reform of the liturgy because of their reign of narcissism.
How has this come about? Often theories are put forward based on gender confusion. For some, this narcissism is motivated by repressive, introspective tendencies that have come raging out as crass effeminacy. For others, it is squarely the effect of a womynization of the Church and capitulation to an ideology of feminazi origins. And for others, it is precisely because there are not enough women in the Church to counter the male’s tendency to fall into the pool of self-admiration.
As with most things, there are actually merits to all of the above arguments even as there are also significant problems with them as well. They also focus almost exclusively on the narcissism of the clergy, as if that alone is the root of the malaise in the contemporary Catholic Church. In this essay I would like to explore what I opine to be some of causes of narcissism in the Church and possible avenues of correcting it.
Causes of Narcissism:
1. A confusion of the natural/supernatural
One of the great projects of modern theology has been to try to underline the fundamental unity between the natural and the supernatural, and to overcome the dichotomy by which man is seen as independent of the supernatural order and God. This project has not been universally successful at the theological level. Too often, it has lapsed into subsuming the natural into the supernatural or reducing the supernatural to some pale unnecessary addition to nature.
Yet if I somehow sees the supernatural life of grace as a right owed to human nature, then it is impossible for me to see anything beyond my own intrinsic goodness. Even the recognition of my error and sin can be dismissed by a distorted understanding of Divine Mercy. How many people in our pews and sanctuaries have deceived themselves into believing that they are good people and that God must grant them eternal life just because they exist? The relativization of sin and its consequences has led to a dismissal of God’s justice. My human nature is good and this is all that is. Grace is just a good happy feeling that I have that God sees me as good too. The supernatural life of grace is reduced to my own self-esteem. This leads to an unhealthy preoccupation with myself and my own natural happiness, because of my inability to see my nature in its reality and God’s supernatural power to transform and perfect my nature. In the liturgy, this leads to an attitude that the sacraments are merely human rites that must be manipulated to grant me the maximal boost to self-esteem. Liturgy becomes a celebration of my best self.
2. The exaltation of immanence over transcendence
Often we speak of a tension between the vertical and the horizontal in the liturgy, between a focus on God and a focus on man. In reality, the liturgy contains this tension. There is the aspect of adoration, of praise rendered freely to God, as well as instruction and inspiration of man. But it also must be recognized that while the supernatural is found within the soul in sanctifying grace, immanent, it is also entirely transcendent, and independent of me. If the liturgy does not incarnate an attitude of reverence and respect for the absolute holiness of God, then it will lapse into a preoccupation with individual and social human needs. Against the backdrop of confusion over nature and the supernatural, the exaltation of the immanence of grace in me versus the transcendence of God means the end of doxological aspect of worship becomes secondary to the liturgy seen as a means to fulfill my own need to transcend myself. But that transcendence can only be had by divine agency, but having banished it, I continually seek for the liturgy to serve me instead of its being a place to praise God.
3. Gender Ambiguity
It is a truth that every human person is not only a rational animal sharing a common human nature, but an engendered individual. We are either male or female, and that brings with it a corresponding biological, spiritual and psychological component of our nature. This is independent of the way that culture and history conditions perceptions of gender roles. The liturgy incarnates in its own symbolic way the engendered nature of the human person, according to divine revelation. Political attempts to modify the cultural and historical perceptions of gender roles have been translated into the liturgy. There are calls to modify the language and symbolism of the liturgy according to the changing perception of gender roles. This leads to a preoccupation with the physical gender as well as the conformity or lack thereof to gender roles of those in the sanctuary and in the pews. It deplaces the attention from the gender-independent Mystery behind the rites to the gender of those who participate in them. In so doing, it leads to a preoccupation with conforming the liturgy to however I want to reshape gender roles instead of respecting the engendered nature of liturgical symbolism which points beyond the symbol to something transcending it.
4. Democratization and Declericalization of the Liturgy
Calls for reconstituting the Church along the lines of an imagined democratic organization have obliterated the distinction between the ministerial and the common priesthood. Emphasis on the sacraments as encounters with Christ the High Priest has been replaced by an exaggerated emphasis on the rights of the priest over the rights of the laity and vice-versa. The laity, in assuming or usurping roles that belong by right or by tradition to the clergy, have correspondingly been clericalized. The clergy who protest at such a phenomenon are dismissed as clericalists. Either way, the respect for the difference in roles at the liturgy and their ontological and theological roles has faded before the demands of a politically motivated egalitarianism. Just as in political life, the struggle for equality requires a constant calling attention to where inequalities remain, when this is translated to the liturgy, the rites become a battlefield for the destruction of inequality and not a place of prayer. Attention is given to political change within the Church and not to the adoration of the Divine Majesty reflected in the hierarchical communion of the Church whose constitution was given to it by Christ.
The perduring idea that the liturgy should correspond to my likes and dislikes perpetuates individualism within the liturgy. The refusal to actively participate in the liturgy, both interiorly and exteriorly, privileges an atomist understanding of the human person vis-à-vis God. The subjection of public prayer to private devotion, individual initiative, temerarious opinion, and the arbitrary decisions of committees reinforces the idea that the liturgy is a merely human rite capable of manipulation by individual interests. When I see the liturgy in this fashion, it is easy then to focus on how I want to change the liturgy to correspond to my own individual needs.
Antidotes to Narcissism:
1. Mass is not a What, it is a Who
The first antidote to narcissism in the liturgy is catechetical. We must be taught again that the Mass is not a what, it is not a human rite which can and should be manipulated so as to express human desires or to promote human goods. The Mass is a who, rather it is the prayer of self-offering of Jesus Christ to His Father for the remission of sins. A vigorous reproposal of the teaching of the Council of Trent and Vatican II on the sacrificial aspect of the Mass will help us to overcome the tendency to make the liturgy a merely natural human phenomenon.
2. Ad Orientem
The celebration of the parts of the Mass which are not directly aimed at the instruction or the edification of the faithful must be returned to a symbolic focus which is not the people. The classical ad orientem position of the celebrant at the altar in celebrating the Sacrifice of the Mass underscores the transcendence of Christ’s action in the Mass. Facing the people during those parts of the Mass which are for their instruction or edification will then highlight the immanence of the divine life of grace in us. The balance between immanence and transcendence will thus be restored in the liturgy.
The celebration of all of the parts of the Mass versus populum actually assists clericalism. It makes the altar into a barrier between presider and people, and sets him up against the people. Rather, the fact of presider and people facing the same direction indicates the unity of the priest with his people, rather than give the opportunity for the priest to manage the people by his actions.
3. Eucharistic Cultus
Pius XII stated that the tabernacle and the altar should not be separated. This follows upon the principle that Sacrifice and Sacrament are not separated. To that end, the placement of the tabernacle once again upon the altar prevents the celebrant from arbitrarily placing himself at the center of the divine drama. It also shows the unity between the sacrifice of the Mass and the sacrament shared in Holy Communion. The adoration of the Blessed Sacrament outside of Mass flows from Mass: Adoration, Benediction, Processions and Holy Hours all stem from the Mass.
The cult of the Eucharist is a pledge of faith in the Incarnation of the God-Man. Because Jesus is a divine person with a divine but also a human nature, engendered, incarnational and Eucharistic devotion also underscores the proper sphere of gender in the human person without ambiguity, as well as points to the Mystery of God which is beyond gender and humanity.
4. Communion on the Tongue and Kneeling
There is nothing inherently wrong about receiving Holy Communion standing or in the hand. But the reception of Holy Communion kneeling is a sign of adoration of the transcendence of the Divine Majesty. It is a corrective to a democratization of the liturgy in that it emphasizes the humility of the believer who does not stand with rights before God. It also is a corrective to the declericalization of the liturgy because Communion on the tongue emphasizes that the Body and Blood of Christ come as a gift from Christ the High Priest. Just as a baby bird is nourished by its mother directly in the mouth, the Christ the Priest through the ministerial priest nourishes the spiritual child directly in the mouth with no other intervention.
5. A Liturgical Communitarian Spirituality
Homiletics during the liturgy must focus on the intrinsic connection between liturgy and life. The Eucharist has dimensions which extend far beyond the church doors. It reaches into the family hearth, the school, the workplace, the soup kitchen and the courtroom. The correspondence between the celebration of the Sacred Mysteries and the social apostolate of the Church and the moral life of families in the world combats individualism in the Church. The realization that as a Church we are a communion of holy people sharing in the Holy must be accompanied by the vision of the Church on a mission to build the Kingdom of God in the world.
These are just a few ideas of the causes of narcissism in the Church today, as well as some practical ideas for overcoming them. I have never claimed the charism of infallibility, so feel free to disagree with me or challenge the above. I do think that it is a disservice to the Church to pin narcissism on such superficial things as the fashion, hobbies, and quirks of the clergy. Those things can certainly be manifestations of narcissism, but the roots are much deeper, and affect not only the clergy, but the whole life of the Church. It is imperative that we discover those roots, and get rid of them. But the eradication of all that is less than it should be in the Church will come, not from polemic and mutual incrimination, but through conversion of heart away from ourselves and towards God.